Zero-emission electric commercial vehicles
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Navistar plans to launch medium-duty electric trucks in early 2021. Its eMV battery-electric prototype with 321-kWh battery setup is expected to offer about 250 miles of range. (SAE/Ryan Gehm)

Zeroing in on zero emissions

Batteries, fuel cells to proliferate in next quarter-century as governments and other organizations push for fleets of all zero-emission commercial vehicles.

Electrification is inevitable for commercial vehicles. That is the takeaway from a quick succession of zero-emission commercial vehicle (ZECV) initiatives announced by various groups since the summer solstice. California came first, with its Advanced Clean Trucks rule that requires manufacturers who certify Class 2b-8 chassis or complete vehicles to transition from diesel-powered trucks and vans to electric ZECVs, including hydrogen fuel cells, beginning in 2024. By 2045, every new truck sold in California will be zero-emission.

With the new “first-of-its-kind” rule, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) sets other milestones in the intervening years, including an all zero-emission short-haul drayage fleet in ports and railyards by 2035 and all “last-mile” delivery trucks and vans by 2040. At least 40% of all tractor-trailers sold in the state must be zero-emission by 2035.

“We are showing the world that we can move goods, grow our economy and finally dump dirty diesel,” Jared Blumenfeld, California’s Secretary for Environmental Protection, said in the June 25 announcement. Just weeks later, 15 states and the District of Columbia signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to collaboratively accelerate the market for medium- and heavy-duty electric vehicles. The coalition seeks to “eradicate toxic diesel emissions” by 2050, with an interim target of 30% zero-emission vehicle sales by 2030.

States signing the MOU are California, Connecticut, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington. They will work through the existing multi-state ZEV Task Force facilitated by the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management (NESCAUM) to develop and implement an action plan within six months.

To meet such aggressive zero-emission targets in the next 25 to 30 years, infrastructure must be addressed to enable and accommodate ZECV growth. To that end, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Moving Forward Act on July 1, a $1.5 trillion plan that encompasses, among many other aspects of American infrastructure, the acceleration of electric fleets and charging.

For example, a $70 billion investment into modernizing the U.S.’s energy infrastructure includes significant grants to develop an EV charging infrastructure, and $25 billion toward the U.S. Postal Service includes stipulations for a move toward a zero-emissions postal vehicle fleet. The bill is now in the Senate; it remains to be seen how these electrification investments will fare.

Incentives are another important aspect for quicker adoption of ZECVs, helping to reduce upfront costs for fleets. The National Zero-Emission Truck (ZET) Coalition, organized by CALSTART, is attempting to create a five-year point-of-sale incentive program totaling over $2 billion at the federal level that would help introduce tens of thousands of ZETs into American fleets.

Commenting on joining the coalition in mid-July, Danfoss Editron’s VP in the U.S. Joe Mitchell said: “To successfully recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to stimulate the economy through sustainability. The ZET Coalition aims to build a stronger domestic supply chain that can provide high-quality manufacturing jobs, dramatically improve air quality in cities and along congested freight corridors, and ensure the country’s competitiveness in the global zero-emission truck market.”

Diesel still viable, but...
Still, not everyone is on board with completely abandoning “dirty diesel.” The Diesel Technology Forum (DTF) responded to this flurry of ZECV actions by asserting that new- and next-generation diesel engine technologies will remain vital to meeting climate and clean air goals for decades to come. Many industry experts agree.

“While the recently announced MOU takes a long view for commercial trucks in the region to be all electric, there are equally important proven and available near-term opportunities to advance progress for cleaner air and lower greenhouse gas emissions right now,” said Allen Schaeffer, DTF executive director. “Rapidly accelerating the turnover of the existing fleet to the newest generation of diesel technology as well as expanding the use of low-carbon advanced biofuels can deliver benefits today and should not be overlooked.”

Schaeffer added that more technology improvements are coming to make future diesel engines “even nearer-to-zero emissions.” Manufacturers are working with regulators at CARB and the EPA on rulemaking that will establish further reductions in NOx emissions. Even so, at least 70 electric truck and bus models are currently on the market, according to CARB. And many manufacturers intend to launch market-ready ZECVs in the next several years. Recent analysis from CALSTART shows the number of zero-emission trucks, buses and off-road equipment in the U.S. and Canada doubling between the end of 2019 and 2023, when nearly 200 models will be available.

New data from CALSTART’s ZETI (zero-emission technology inventory) online tool shows that ZE commercial models across nearly all vehicle types currently demonstrate a driving range commensurate with user needs. It also reveals that longer ranges are coming (see charts above).

“We are already seeing a healthy number of zero-emission transit and school buses rated for at least 100 miles, and the zero-emission trucks currently on the market offer similar ranges,” said Ben Mandel, CALSTART’s Northeast Regional Director who leads the ZETI team. “In the coming two to three years, we expect to see a growing number of zero-emission medium- and heavy-duty trucks in the 200-mile or greater range, with a few extra long-distance models greater than 600 miles by 2023.” 

So, diesel may indeed remain viable in the near- to mid-term, but electrification certainly appears inevitable in the long run.

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