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How to smooth the road for electric work trucks

February 13, 2023 | By Christopher Lyon

February 13, 2023 – There are good reasons for many fleets to switch to electric power, but converting a fleet of work trucks to run on electricity is no easy flip of a switch. To start with, producing just a regular work truck is far from simple, as these vehicles are often constructed in multiple stages by multiple manufacturers. Converting them from internal combustion engines to electric drive systems adds to the complexity.

Yet, whether due to the pursuit of improved lifetime cost, productivity, regulatory or sustainability outcomes—or some combination thereof—the work truck industry’s interest in electric vehicle (EV) fleets is gaining traction fast. Most of these vehicles will be battery-electric vehicles (BEVs), powered solely by batteries installed within the vehicle’s frames. Some EVs may be hybrids, equipped with both electric drives and (typically) gasoline engines.

While EVs may not be suitable for every work truck application, the technology continues to advance as additional options for electric trucks become available and the batteries that make their wheels turn become more efficient.

Why switch from gas to electric?


Electric power appeals to many fleet operators for several compelling reasons. EVs deliver a lower total cost of vehicle ownership thanks to reduced fuel spend and lower maintenance costs. They also eliminate tailpipe emissions, help achieve corporate environmental goals and, in many cases, enable quiet operation on urban streets and during overnight operations.

Because they are purpose-built for defined missions, work trucks are complex vehicles that require considerable engineering and overall effort by fleets and their suppliers to put them on the road. On the other hand, these job-specific trucks are likely to deliver a much longer life cycle than mass-produced vehicles.

The specific reasons why a particular fleet would consider shifting to lower emissions vehicles—indeed, the bar now is as low as zero emissions—should be clearly defined and weighed prior to starting any EV conversion. Among the key considerations:

• Lower operating and life cycle costs
• Support energy independence
• Reduce energy costs
• Improve the fleet’s public image

As bright as the electric future appears, shifting a single truck or an entire fleet to electric power takes a lot of planning. That starts with attaining leadership buy-in. From there, consider the electric ecosystem that will surround and support these work trucks. That’s why the next step is for the fleet to form cooperative partnerships with vehicle builders and their EV component suppliers, battery manufacturers, electric utilities and providers of onsite charging infrastructure.

Back to basics

When communicating with these partners, be sure to define the fleet’s drive cycle and duty cycle for each type of truck to be converted. These are the two pillars by which you define a work truck’s mission, and accomplish that mission. Avoid the common pitfall of confusing the two. The DRIVE CYCLE defines how a vehicle is used, while the DUTY CYCLE defines how often a vehicle is used.

In simple terms, the drive cycle measures physical points, such as vehicle speed, starts and stops, idle time and power take-off (PTO). The duty cycle measures the length of average operating time, operating cycles per period, total distance driven and percentage of loaded versus empty operation.

Mutually inclusive, these metrics define how vehicles are utilized, and both are crucial when considering all aspects of electrifying the fleet.

Engage with suppliers

Most vocational trucks are built in multiple stages by multiple manufacturers. While some fleets work with a single source (e.g. a turnkey fleet management company), others will interact with several partners; perhaps the chassis supplier, an auxiliary equipment supplier, and an upfitter.

While industry standardization keeps evolving, technology also continues to advance. Taking time on the front end to evaluate all options—from the capabilities of the electric drive system under consideration to how the truck batteries will be charged—helps ensure the final spec’d unit serves its intended purpose. Following a methodical procedure and engaging the right people at the right time is critical.

With almost every vehicle change, there are hidden and unanticipated costs, and other challenges that creep up and can derail or significantly delay a vehicle spec’ing campaign. Don’t overlook costs and prices beyond the power unit when planning. These could involve facility upgrades, technician training or operational requirements based on vehicle limits (e.g. range, towing). You may find that vehicle design is the easy part. Designing and installing charging and maintenance infrastructure can get complicated.

Charging ahead

Many fleets, especially in the work truck sector, cannot rely on public infrastructure, either for fuelling or charging. Therefore, it’s critical to talk to the utility company about the supply of power available and whether it can support the vehicles.

Next, develop a long-term plan for charging infrastructure, as it can be a very expensive afterthought. It’s essential to plan, not just for current needs, but for tomorrow, as well. This involves consultations, designing, permitting, constructing, managing and, finally, activating. Having the right partners lined up and communicating with them effectively is of utmost importance.

A deeper dive into EV charging will reveal that most fleets require two types of charging solutions. Depending on duty cycles, plan on installing enough “overnight” chargers stations so that vehicles returned to their depot can slowly recharge over a period of hours to be ready for their next shift.

To supplement these slow chargers, a fleet may install a number of “opportunity” (a.k.a. quick-charge) stations that can rapidly top up a vehicle on duty to extend its range, as needed. Light-duty fleets may also have drivers who recharge vehicles at their homes; this will require a plan for installing chargers at these employees’ homes and, likely, some kind of reimbursement system.

Work with suppliers to enable data collection and processing, which will better inform management on the performance of the EVs and their chargers. And, bear in mind that it is the fleet’s continuing responsibility to ensure charging stations are installed in accordance with applicable codes, and operated safely by trained personnel.

In the end, work trucks need to perform specific tasks to meet organizational goals. Once these are defined, each fleet can establish its own measurement of success. While these goals may differ among fleets, success means getting the commercial vehicle’s job done effectively and efficiently.

Christopher Lyon joined NTEA in 2015 as director of fleet relations and Green Truck Association (GTA) fleet liaison. In this role, he connects distributors, manufacturers, and end user fleets while staying abreast of current issues impacting the fleet community. He also serves on the executive board of the Chicago Area Clean Cities Coalition.

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