April 4, 2011 / 6:00 PM / in 7 years

Plugging Electric Drivetrains into Trucks

Within the universe of electric vehicles, an interesting niche is being carved out, as entrepreneurs and vehicle manufacturers are finding that success may be with some of the most unlikely plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs): medium and heavy duty trucks.

From a pure fuel cost standpoint, electricity driven trucks make a lot of sense since these vehicles typically get between three and 12 miles per gallon depending on their weight and drive cycle. Additionally, many medium duty box trucks and stepvans are used in urban settings with return-to-base operations where they go and make a set delivery route, then return to a warehouse. As long as their route fits within the vehicle range, electric drive can fit well with these operations. However, of course, physics gets in the way since many trucks have all the aerodynamic design of a brick and are much heavier than passenger cars. To be effective with electric drive, the vehicles require substantial battery capacity which carries with it substantial cost. Fortunately, because fleets often consider vehicles based on their total cost of ownership, the higher vehicle costs are often still lower than the total cost of a diesel truck plus buying the fuel over eight or more years.

Smith Electric Vehicles is likely the most well known of the “new” crop of electric truck manufacturers, producing their Newton medium duty box trucks. Other start-ups, including Electric Vehicles International, Bright Automotive, and Boulder EV, are also offering PEV trucks of varying sizes.

I recently spoke with Balwinder Samra, President and CEO of Balqon, an electric drivetrain manufacturer in Los Angeles, and he points out that in trucks the higher gross vehicle weight (GVW) means that batteries make up a smaller percentage of the total vehicle weight. In medium and heavy duty trucks, it is possible to get the battery pack to a 10 percent of GVW, which is very difficult in a passenger cars and lighter step vans.

Balqon manufactures EV yard trucks currently used to move containers over short distances in the Port of Los Angeles, as well as drivetrains (including electric motor, transmissions, electronics, batteries, battery management system, and inverters). Mr. Samra said that with these drivetrains, Balqon is targeting smaller truck manufacturers because they tend to be more flexible and have fewer resources to develop their own drivetrain. Companies such as Volvo, Freightliner, and Ford have the resources to develop their own drivetrains and in essence don’t need Balqon.

The medium duty truck market has seen the number of drivetrain suppliers for PEV medium duty trucks grow in the last several years. Beyond Balqon, ALTe and Wrightspeed are now offering plug-in hybrid drivetrains for medium duty trucks. This business model is somewhat similar to that of natural gas vehicles converters. ALTe and Wrightspeed offer conversion to plug-in drivetrains for existing trucks.

Balqon is unique in this regard, because their model is more as that of a tier one supplier to automakers to provide drivetrains for the vehicle assembly line (think a small version of Eaton), rather than converting existing vehicles. Although both business models make sense in today’s market, the question is whether converters (ostensibly without OEM partners) will be able to remain viable as large truck manufacturers (such as Daimler Trucks, Volvo, and Navistar) promote their OEM plug-in offerings.

Photo by Smith Electric Vehicles

As an analyst for Pike Research, Dave Hurst studies emerging markets in electric transportation.

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