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Transforming diesel-powered excavators into fully-electric machines is key in meeting the Norwegian government’s new policy on zero-emission construction sites. Danfoss Editron is helping to electrify Cat equipment supplied by Pon Equipment to Scandinavian countries. (Courtesy: Danfoss Editron)

Electrification takes (some of) the load

The heavy-duty commercial vehicle community is taking a keener look at electrification. Several trends are driving this move, and not only emissions regulations. True, a number of large cities, especially in Europe, are passing stringent regulations on exhaust emissions and noise; but as batteries are getting lighter, more energy dense, and cheaper, electrification is becoming more practical. In some applications, it is competitive in total cost of ownership (TCO) compared to diesel internal-combustion engines, according to Dennis Huibregtse, CEO of Power Systems Research, a market analysis firm specializing in commercial vehicles.

To answer which applications are best suited for electrification, Huibregtse took an expansive view at the entire “ecosystem” any commercial vehicle or off-highway machine has to operate in and its costs. Ranging from acquisition to user familiarity, his company created a favorability rating for all the powertrain options currently on the table (see chart).

“Each alternative has its own compelling feature,” he said, speaking at The Battery Show North America in September. Not surprisingly, diesel rates well in key areas; however, in many other areas, pure battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) are quite competitive, according to their analysis. Emissions are zero and fuel cost is better. Pure BEVs are also less complex and have much lower maintenance cost.

The applications that best matched the favorable attributes included drayage, or short haul around ports; urban delivery; and utility. Other applications might include regional hauling and refuse. He also sees industrial uses in forklift trucks, aerial lifts, utility vehicles, and aircraft ground support vehicles.

There was one application he quickly ruled out. “For line haul, over-the-road transport we do not see any alternatives to the internal combustion engine,” he said, adding, “Possibly with alternative fuels like natural gas.”

He also cautioned agricultural applications are not a good fit for electrification. Ag equipment is used in remote areas. Recharging infrastructure will be difficult to install, noise is not a problem, and continuous use is similar to long-haul trucks. “Construction might see more hybridization than BEVs,” he said.

“For both refuse and urban transit, regenerative braking is an important feature—in both situations you stop and go constantly,” he explained. “Some refuse vehicles require brake servicing or new brakes on a weekly basis in heavy urban usage. The brake maintenance cost alone may exceed fuel costs on a diesel vehicle. This makes electric vehicles that use regenerative braking very appealing to those operators.”

Urban transit at the tipping point

Some of the industry professionals interviewed for this feature indicated that urban transit buses may very well be at the tipping point for full electrification.

“The transit market is shifting to electric vehicles,” claimed Dr. Gary Horvat, CTO of Proterra, a supplier of heavy-duty electric transportation. “As our [vehicle] costs have come down, following the decreases in battery costs, our deliveries have gone up,” he said at The Battery Show North America.

Proterra has sold 670 BEV buses to 72 different agencies, according to the company’s website. Horvat showed a chart of EV bus sales against the market as a whole that indicated that BEV urban transit buses, at least, have reached an important adoption milestone—about 15% of the market. In terms of marketing such innovations, this means that the all-important “early majority” class of adopters is buying into the practical benefits of electrified urban transit. Reaching this key milestone means electric buses might be on their way to full adoption.

An example of this adoption trend occurred in August when Edmonton Transit Service (ETS) ordered 25 new 40-ft Proterra Catalyst E2 max vehicles, which will replace 25 of the Canadian city’s existing diesel buses. Proterra’s electric buses are winter compatible with a range of up to 400 km (250 mi), pointed out Eddie Robar, Branch Manager of ETS, in the announcement.

The new electric buses are expected to deliver a cost savings of roughly 30% for service and maintenance, according to Proterra. The BEV buses are expected to be in regular service in the summer of 2020.

Accelerating demand, accelerating solutions

Tier 1 suppliers, who typically serve both commercial truck and off-road markets, are seeing demand increase.

“The technical development in our industry is fast [in the] kind of vehicles being electrified. We see the market growth only accelerating and for our side it is important to keep our technology lead,” Tomi Ristimäki, Sales Director, OEM, of Danfoss Editron, said to Truck & Off-Highway Engineering.

In response to such demand, his company, a segment of Danfoss Power Solutions, developed its Editron, a complete electric drivetrain system for inclusion in marine, off-road, or transport systems such as urban buses. The system is suitable for hybrid and electric applications within the power range of 30 to 2,000 kW.

In October, Danfoss Editron announced delivering electrification technology to support Pon Equipment AS, an example of the supplier’s increasing workload in this area. The work involved transforming diesel-powered 25-ton Cat 323F Z-line machines into electric excavators. Pon Equipment is the official Caterpillar dealer in the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Denmark. The transformed machines can operate for up to seven hours on a single battery charge under nominal load. The electric excavator is zero emission and significantly quieter than the former diesel machine, making it ideal for use in urban areas with noise restrictions, according to Danfoss Editron.

This development brings up the question, is it better to backfit existing machines or build an all-new vehicle? “There is not one answer to this [question] as naturally designing the vehicle from the start to get all the benefits of the technology is better,” Ristimäki explained. “But using the existing machine as the basis [from the start] gets the vehicles to the market.” It also means getting the experience of using the machine, leading to a better design in the future. “Electrification is happening now, not in the distant future. The machines and vehicles of tomorrow are developed today,” he said.

Another company that has seen growth in supplying electrification technology is AxleTech. “Our electrification team has grown fivefold in just the last couple of years,” Jason Gies, Director of Business Development, Electric Vehicle Systems, told TOHE.

One advantage AxleTech has in the electrification wave is that the company specializes in customized solutions, Gies said. This is ideal for customers like Proterra, one of AxleTech’s key clients. “In addition to transit, we are moving into other markets, including short-haul trucks,” he said. “Even our traditional heavy-duty off-highway customers are looking into electric powertrain solutions for their applications.”

Gies agrees with others that electrification is starting to show up in favorable TCO. “There are still cost challenges; however, with battery prices dropping, we are predicting price parity with diesel ICEs—in certain applications—sometime between 2020 and 2030,” he said. “In other applications, such as transit buses, parity will be achieved much sooner.”

In October, the company announced it was developing a heavy-duty e-powertrain system with Thor Trucks, a fleet-focused transportation lab building fully-electric commercial trucks. AxleTech’s electric axle technology will be integrated with Thor’s proprietary battery technology to create a fully-electric powertrain.

“In addition to working with Thor Trucks, we are planning to launch a full suite of integrated [electric axle] systems for various vehicle applications over the next year,” said Gies.

Balances, batteries and trade-offs

While electrification is important, suppliers and OEMs still need a balanced portfolio of options. “Electrification is important, but we need to be ready for all missions,” said Oscar Baroncelli, Head of Global Product Marketing for FPT Industrial. The company is pursuing not only BEVs, but hybrids and hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric powertrains as well.

“Battery-electrics will be needed in certain urban environments, plug-in hybrids with a range extender for suburban applications, and fuel cells for long-haul systems,” he said. FPT is also continuing to pursue diesel technologies as well as alternative fuels including CNG, LNG, and biofuels. “We need to provide the correct design for the applications,” he said.

Ease of integration is important to FPT, which is why it developed an eAxle solution. “The eAxle is very flexible because it is a plug-and-play component,” he said. “You can power it from any source, a battery or a fuel cell or integrated into a hybrid vehicle. It is a super compact architecture.”

Is it all about the battery? It remains the costliest component in most electrified systems, certainly in BEVs. In the light-duty passenger-vehicle market, the “magic” battery cost bogey was roughly $100/kW·h to make a BEV cost competitive with conventionally powered vehicles. It is hard to tell if that is the correct cost target in commercial vehicles and off-highway applications.

“The number is likely to be substantially higher than $100/kW·h, but the ‘drive to 100’ has given these [commercial] applications the promise of being much more competitive,” said Michael Sanders, Senior Advisor from Avicenne Energy. He believes that as electrification becomes more mainstream for automotive and energy storage systems, there will be more companies that continue to facilitate the packs, chargers, and infrastructure necessary for the heavy-duty and off-road markets.

“I think electrification in the commercial space is just the tipping point right now,” he told TOHE. “We are starting to see what I would call the early demonstration programs in many of those early segments. As people get the data off of those, expect more and more converting.”

He points to a major supplier, Cummins, and its development of electrification technologies and offerings. “They view this as a good market opportunity,” he said.

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