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The BMW battery equipped EPIC chassis, which debuted at the 2019 Work Truck Show, will be available across Motiv's entire range of commercial-vehicle applications. (Motiv)

Bigger barrier to CBEVs: Batteries or infrastructure?

Batteries have long been considered the main barrier to deployment of commercial battery-electric vehicles (CBEVs), but many industry insiders now believe charging infrastructure is a bigger impediment as battery costs continue to decline.

“A decade ago we would have said battery cost is the biggest barrier, but I think we’re moving beyond that,” Gary Parker, Director of Electrified Power Engineering Programs at Cummins, said at the recent Green Truck Summit in Indianapolis. “Infrastructure is going to be one of the big barriers, if we can get through not just basic capital costs but also the grid and its stability.”

In the passenger-car market, the battery cost bogey is between $80-$100/kWh. In medium-duty trucks, “$200/kWh battery packs are game-changing,” according to Jim Castelaz, founder and CTO of Motiv Power Systems. The fuel savings to be had in this segment by moving to electric are far greater than those for cars, he said.

 Castelaz thanked pass-car companies like Tesla and BMW for developing cost-effective battery technology that also benefits commercial vehicles. Motiv is now integrating BMW’s latest third-generation lithium-ion battery packs used in i models into its all-electric EPIC chassis.

Darren Gosbee, VP of Engineering at Navistar, noted that the price of the battery has a much bigger impact as the vehicle gets bigger or needs more range. Specific applications that require a smaller battery pack, like medium-duty, pickup-and-delivery, and last-mile delivery, will hit TCO (total cost of ownership) first, he said, because they don’t need the range nor have the weight from excessive batteries, which eats into payload.

So, is the medium-duty market near that tipping point? Not yet, according to Tim Reeser, CEO of Lightning Systems.

“No one’s at $200/kWh, I’m absolutely positive of that, including Tesla, when you include everything that has to be there to have a good-quality, thermally-managed battery,” he said.

Several questions need asked and key variables accounted for when considering battery costs.

“When they say a battery’s $200/kWh, does it include any of the thermal management, the battery management, does it include manufacturing overhead, labor to install, and most importantly, what’s the volume purchase?” Reeser posed.

Lightning buys Samsung or LG Chem batteries that are thermally managed, include a battery management system, and have “truck packaging” that makes them truly heavy duty. “We see prices in the $400/kWh range,” he shared. “If we were buying in Tesla’s quantity, we’d be closer to $300/kWh.”

In short, batteries are by no means stricken from the list of obstacles to overcome for CBEV deployment. But they have made enough progress in recent years to fade into the background a bit and let another barrier take some heat.

Charging infrastructure is one of the largest unknowns and sources of anxiety for fleets considering near-term adoption of battery-electric technology, according to Mike Roeth, Executive Director of the North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE), which recently issued a Guidance Report on the topic focused on CBEVs in North America.

“Virtually everybody we talked to that had deployed electric infrastructure, it cost more and took more time than they thought it would—sort of like building a house for the first time,” he said.

“Return-to-base” or depot charging will be the focus at first, because it removes some of the uncertainties involved—including which type of EVSE (electric vehicle supply equipment) will likely be utilized.

“Fast charging is not really an issue for most medium-duty trucks in the U.S. Most are one-shift operations with lots of time to charge,” Don Francis, Executive Director of Clean Cities Georgia, said in the report. That means Level 2 240-V chargers will suffice for many fleets that charge overnight.

Although not sufficient today, charging infrastructure is not an insurmountable problem, the NACFE report concludes. So, barriers will topple—eventually—and CBEVs will proliferate. There is no question about that, is there?

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