By Randy Bryan
Just recently, major companies, cities, and countries have committed to 100% electric vehicles within a couple decades. However, there are more than 100M light-medium duty vehicles on U.S. roads and just 3% have any form of electric drive (2% hybrid, 1% plug-in), and those are all cars. How do we get from here to there? Fortunately, appealing electric cars are now being introduced and their sales will mushroom over the coming decade. But, almost no light-medium duty trucks are electrified. Yet, in some cases, electric drive may be better suited to the tasks assigned. Actually, electric drives may be better suited to trucks than cars.
What’s the draw of an electric drivetrain for trucks? The answer is better reliability and lower operating costs. The fuel (electricity) is about half the cost of gasoline or diesel per mile, maintenance is maybe a third of the cost for combustion cars (only one moving part), and the electric motor doesn’t pollute. And, there’s better torque than diesel, especially at low speeds, and regenerative braking recoups some “fuel” when braking and saves on brake pad wear.
What’s holding electric drive back? It’s the batteries. Battery development and costs stagnated for a hundred years, but now lithium battery capabilities have been doubling every six to seven years and prices halving every four years. Today, the purchase price of an electric or hybrid vehicle is above the cost of an internal combustion vehicle, but the lower operating costs often enable the total cost of ownership (TCO) to be lower after a few years of use. This will improve over time, like computers did. So when does a fleet jump in and start using electric drive? Many have already done so.
One of the top electric drive companies in the country is right here in the Boston area, XL Hybrids. They provide partial electrification of trucks and have been quite successful at getting solutions that make sense into the fleet market. Their primary product has been the addition of a hybrid electric drive (no plug) to the standard combustion truck. They add an electric motor to the driveshaft, with battery, controller and sensors (cellular uplink for analytics) added in convenient places. They often save over 20% of operating costs.
XL Hybrids have versions for class 2 to 6 GM, Ford, and Isuzu trucks (pickups, cutaways, stripped, and more), and for the Chevy Express and Ford Transit vans. According to their CTO, Ed Lovelace, this simple bolt-on product “improves the performance of the truck and lowers its fuel consumption and maintenance cost.” No changes are required for the driver or fleet mechanic. “The critical thing to look for is trucks that are driven enough for the lower operating costs to outweigh the purchase price.”This turns out to be about 50 miles a day. And lots of fleet trucks do fit that profile. Mr. Lovelace adds, “XL Hybrid trucks have accumulated over 50 million miles in seven years of operations, generating savings for their fleet customers.” And that makes them the largest company in their field. The secret of their success has been to focus on the customer and what products will save them money.
Looking to the future, XL Hybrids has also developed a plug-in hybrid product that adds a larger battery and plug to their existing product for more aggressive savings (and higher price). As battery prices drop and capabilities improve, the battery will become ever more central to fleet operations.
XL Hybrids is but one good example of many conversion companies offering credible products to fleets. There is something for every fleet manager to consider.
Randy Bryan has been an advocate for electric cars for 8+ years. His company, ConVerdant Vehicles, has converted vehicles to plug-in hybrids, including his own Prius in 2008, and developed and sold inverters that turn a Prius into an emergency generator. He is one of the co-founders of Drive Electric NH.