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Opinion: Feet where our heads should be: Are we going about EVs the wrong way round?

8 July 2016

by Roger Bedell, Founder, Opbrid

Are we looking at vehicle electrification upside down? Why are we focusing on electrifying smaller vehicles like cars and delivery trucks when electrifying really big trucks makes the most economic sense?

Electricity is about ½ the cost of diesel or gasoline. This means the more fuel you burn, the more money you save. Heavy long-haul trucks are the kings of fuel consumption, so therefore they are the best target for electrification from an economic standpoint. A 40-ton long-haul truck driving at 60 mph (about 100 km/h) uses between 8 to 13 gallons of diesel per hour according to a detailed Swedish survey. This is 20 to 30USD per hour, or in the UK, 40 to 60 USD per hour! This makes fuel costs much higher than a driver’s salary on a per hour basis, and is the largest percentage cost item for trucking companies. If fuel costs can be cut in half by switching to electricity, electrification can be very interesting indeed for a truck operator.

For the past 8 years I’ve been heavily involved in the electrification of urban buses as founder of Opbrid, maker of the Bůsbaar fast charging stations. [Earlier post.] Originally, I thought that political pressure from the public concerned about global warming would drive politicians to choose electric buses even if the cost was higher. However, I’ve been wrong, with electric buses so far making very slow inroads into bus fleets.

During that time I’ve seen a host of presentations that purport to show that electric buses are “almost” equal to diesel buses considering Total Cost of Ownership (TCO). Even though the upfront cost of the bus is high, enough savings in fuel costs offset this by the end of the life of the bus, about 10 years.

So, I started thinking, if buses save money on fuel, what if you use even more fuel—like long haul trucks do? Then the savings should be even higher, potentially high enough to be economically attractive. If the economic benefits are high enough, then “the invisible hand of the market” should step in to cause electrification of trucks without any governmental or political intervention, and the environmental benefits simply come along for the ride.

So, the key is to look for situations where fuel usage is the highest—one of which is heavy trucks running at highway speeds for long distances.

Sure, they aren’t the easiest things to electrify, but they have the most potential profit possibilities for electrification. Several possibilities have been proposed for long-haul trucks, including the Siemens eHighway that has recently been in the news. [Earlier post.] These solutions generally involve huge infrastructure projects and the corresponding investment, which will take many years.

Fortunately, I recently found another possibility in an old business model: the Pony Express mail service from the 1860s’ Wild West. The riders of the Pony Express would ride their horse until it was exhausted, then switch to a fresh horse and continue on. This made it possible to take a letter from coast to coast in only 10 days—a miracle in those days. Applying this principle to electric long-haul trucks, the idea is to run an electric tractor trailer until the battery is exhausted (about 120 miles or 2 hours), then swap the tractor for a fresh, fully charged tractor and continue on. [Earlier post.]

Coming and Going of the Pony Express, by Frederic Remington. Click to enlarge.

Fortunately, the technology for this already exists. Battery trucks with 120-mile range exist—although are not yet very common. Automated charging stations like the Opbrid Trůkbaar are already proven. [Earlier post.] And a fast swap system for tractor trailers already exists, the Jost KKS system which allows the driver to connect and disconnect a trailer by simply pushing a button inside the cab. So, if electrifying long haul trucks is profitable, technologically easy to do, and environmentally beneficial, what’s the hold-up?

[Furrer + Frey, a provider of rail electrification and rapid charging systems for transport, and a long-time partner of Opbrid, has acquired Opbrid, and folded it into its operations. Furrer + Frey is now proposing such Pony Express-like tractor swapping for long-haul electrification.]

July 8, 2016 in Electric (Battery), Fleets, Heavy-duty, Opinion | Permalink | Comments (21)


Electrified Pony Express on wheels may look interesting but it is not a practical solution for long haul cargo.

Using existing railroads to move trailers and local e-delivery truck units at each end on a 24-hrs/day basis would be more practical and would remove most of those long haul trucks from highways.

Another acceptable alternate solution may be with Nissan's bio-fuel FCs and a few batteries for acceleration and hills.

GM FAILED in their approach to hybridize the low mpg SUV's. In 2012, GM cancelled the two-mode hybrid system, they claim to make way for another more efficient system, but how many two-mode SUV's have you seen. I see more Tesla model S's in a week, than I have ever seen of GM two-mode SUV's. I think that was just a matter of SUV drivers not caring about their fuel consumption habits.

Now, I think it has more to due with battery capacity. A dozen electric vehicles can be outfitted with the capacity necessary to operate one truck and imagine the charging time necessary using current technology.

The current rollout of small electric vehicles represents a crawl, walk, run mentality in the development of the EV market.

The oil companies and auto companies have depended a hundred years on fossil fuels for their profits and electric drive is very very disruptive to their ability to satisfy the Wall Street crooks with positive quick profit numbers. Their histories show they care less about what their products do to people or the Planet.
These factors are the nemesis to moving quickly to any other form of transportation unless they are forced to do so by Government. Attacking their bread and butter products, i.e., fossil fuel guzzling trucks, amounts to war.

The Republicans, backed by oil money, have already forced their candidate, Trump, to denounce electric drive and have directed him to embrace the continued use of fossil fuels by threats to not pay for his campaign using their oil money.

>>>>>>>>>>"If fuel costs can be cut in half by switching to electricity,..."

Can it? Daimler-Benz Supertruck attained 12 mpg, with a thermal efficiency of 50%. 1 gal of Diesel #2 contains 38 kWh of energy, LHV. So, in one hour at 60 mph, it consumes 5 gallons x 38 kWh = 190 kWh of energy at 50% efficiency. An electric power train achieves about 80% efficiency (0.93^3 for battery eff x motor eff x inverter eff), so would consume 190 /80 x 50 = 119 kWh of electricity.

5 gallon of diesel fuel at $2.15 = $10.75
119 kWh of grid electricity at $0.13/kwh US average = $15.70

Daimler-Benz Supertruck probably is not cheap, but an equivalent electric truck with battery for at least 200-mi range is not cheaper, neither.

Cummins & Peterbilt Supertruck can attain 10.7 MPG, using less technologies, so would still have lower fuel cost than electric truck, with lower acquisition cost than Daimler Supertruck.

Future Hydrogen Fuel Cell Semi-Truck at 12 mile per kg, and future Hydrogen at $4 per kg will cost $20 per hour, $3.30 per hour more than electric semi truck, yet is capable of 100% Renewable Energy and zero emission.

See Nikola Motor Company at

This article doesn't take into account natural gas solutions in its comparison.Without NG being a part of the discussion, it's not worth considering.

Todays Heavy Trucks get 5-6 mpg (
So todays cost of fuel per hour is $22.15 @6 mpg.

Harvy d is right, just use the railroads and you save a lot of fuel and the truck driver where the driver of the locomotive replace 25 truck drivers.

If you want to make sense, as you declare, start with electrification of short haul trucks.

If a heavy truck can run on batteries why not attempt two wheelers,small car, farm tractors, buses and all types of trucks can be made electric. Solar chargers all over the world will eliminate pollution to a major extent. A 60 km range plug in will suffice for 70 percent of like i road should only be allowed in conjusted cities. Why is Toyoto not making i road in mass nos?

Roger Pham, since I'm trying to approach this from an economic rather than environmental view, the Supertrucks are worthy adversaries, and relatively equal in economic benefit/cost. This begs the question; why aren't Supertrucks taking over the market if they are so much cheaper to run? An answer to this would help me decide whether the Pony Express (or EHighway for that matter) is worthwhile pursuing. Perhaps it is because as Mr. Wilder mentions, natural gas is the most economic alternative at the moment?

Interesting to see the Foton Daimler Cummins "China Internet Super Truck" alliance . Will they adopt the Pony Express model and go electric? Or is the influence of Cummins too strong, and they stay with diesel. Driverless electric trucks from China to Europe across Siberia...

EV trucks, I think, can only make over the road if they go with grid ties as they are running down the road.

The battery would have to be impossibly big for a tractor to make it in a long haul scenario, Its more of a weight / size issue in my mind. (if efficiencies are there, cost might not come into play.

Like others said, being able to drive point to point without much stopping or switching tractors is a big deal. If semis could go with swappable batteries the paradigm might change but again, the infrastructure is a challenge to implement. Cars are a personal space, not everyone views them as strict utility. Pony express might work for some companies. But owner operators are a big market, and it won't work for them. (I think its far fetched to say that people would be accepting of it) Battery swaps would be more logical.

Big cars, light duty trucks, and semi's, are neglected. I understand why we don't have any vehicle that tows that are primarily BEV, but hybridization should be goal. Taking advantage of the braking waste heat is the easiest way to improve efficiencies, also if LD trucks went FWD with a rear E axel, there could meet another 3-7% increase. Its just how they implement it.

No one really wants to stop on vacation/work towing a trailer every 100-200 miles to charge it for 30 mins(assuming huge break through in charger technology).

Autonomous trucks would be a game changer, especially if it included an autonomous rail yard.

Natural gas trucks are harder to implement, its a cryogenic fuel, and its not much more efficient. Its just cheaper than most alternatives because its abundant and its fairly easy to capture(it floats up). Truckers basically fuel up before a run, otherwise its wasted as the fuel climbs in temperature. I think LP is better but that's me. Both are much cleaner to burn than diesel and gasoline due to their shorter carbon chains.

The Pony Express made a big play in people's imagination but it was bankrupt in 2 years. Stopping to change tractors ever 2 hours is not even get as far as the Pony Express. Maybe if rechargeable lithium-air batteries become practical, you could replace diesel engines for long haul trucking but the best bet is to haul the trailers or containers by rail and use trucks for the first and last miles.

Besides the infrastructure expense of having tractor-swapping stations spread all over the interstates, the Pony Express model requires you to purchase many more tractors for the same amount of hauling than currently required. If the tractors can recharge in 2 hours to be ready for the next truck needing to swap, and the next truck always arrives just in time, then you need at least 2X the number of tractors. Load balancing, slower charging and dead-ending issues would undoubtedly require a higher multiple. I don't see how you avoid big infrastructure/capital expenses with this model.

I think this is a good case for hydrogen infrastructure.

while it might not be made from Renewables now, it has the potential to be.

a small onboard H2 gen. set, could offset the need for a much larger battery. Range extended BEVs could be a thing in the larger vehicle market.

If the battery and the FC stack are sized appropriately, the need for stopping to charge is all but limited to the end points. The FC could be sized to provide 80% of the needed energy for a trip at max load and the battery could be sized to be big enough for 30% of the trip. (<400kwh Tractor trailers are probably manageable/buildable.)

The vehicle could eat into the battery reserve while climbing/accelerating, and create extra while braking. The battery would diminish as it would go down the road. but if planned right you get there with enough reserve to make it safe to attempt, and if need be, use the FC to charge at a stop.

Sure, the Pony Express only ran for two years, but its demise was primarily caused by the telegraph. The Pony Express was closed two days after the telegraph connected California to Nebraska. I very much hope the Pony Express method of tractor swapping will meet the same fate, with some magic battery giving 1000 miles of range to electric long haul trucks. However in the meantime, tractor swapping may be a useful stopgap measure in electrifying long haul trucks. Since the profitability increases as the difference in cost between electricity and diesel widens, we will implement this first in countries such as the UK and Sweden. The UK because it has high diesel taxes and reasonable electricity rates, and Sweden because it has fairly high diesel prices and extremely low electricity rates. The US probably needs a carbon tax to make electrification of long haul trucks economically attractive, because then natural gas loses its cost advantages. Powering trucks with natural gas is an unfortunate environmental choice, since burning NG emits plenty of CO2, and the inevitable methane losses counter any CO2 gains over burning diesel. As to the infrastructure expense of Pony Express tractor swapping, it is much less than you might imagine (Opbrid makes charging stations you know), and the added expense of having 1.5X the number of tractors is actually not an expense. The extra tractors will be have the same mileage put on them, the fleet will simply last a couple years longer before needing replacement. If you compare tractor swapping to any other method of electrification of long haul trucks, it is by far the most cost effective. Plus, it meshes perfectly with driverless trucks, since a computer doesn't care how many times it stops. Pony Express tractor swapping can be implemented immediately, no new technology is needed. Of course, it favors large fleets, but so will driverless fleets. In a few years owner-operator will no longer exist as a business model.

I don't think we have sufficient battery production capacity as yet or battery charging capacity to electrify heavy trucking. When you have a limited production capacity that you want to ramp up, it makes sense to target the market segment where your product will have the highest specific value -- i.e., where it will fetch the highest prices. That would be cars and scooters, not trucks. The cost of batteries isn't as big a hurdle in that market as it would be for trucking.

I'm thinking this "Pony Express tractor swapping" could be used as a wedge for something more effective. Once a critical mass of electric trucks are on the road it will make more sense to electrify the highways so the time taken to swap tractors can be by-passed.

Why swap tractors? Why not swap batteries like we do in everything else? Make standardized batteries for long haul trucks with size proportions to weight, and mount them to the bottom of the truck. Pull up to a platform, stay in the truck, and have the old battery removed and the replacement installed. There would need to be a redesign of trucks for battery placement. Infrastructure cost might be high though.


Yes, FC-PHEV long haul heavy trucks and intercity buses could use on-board FCs to keep batteries charged.

Near future clean bio-fuel FCs would have an advantage over current diesel units. The total range would be limited to the size of the ethanol tank.

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