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Truck Tech: Earth Day reality check edition

A shortage of batteries and infrastructure means commercial vehicle electrification will arrive more slowly than the hype surrounding it. Could a diesel engine technology stand in the breach? Also, anemic stock prices aside, electrification and autonomous startups are still hiring.

A process, not an event

On Earth Day, it can be easy to get caught up in the possibilities of being better stewards of our environment. But as real as the promise of electrifying commercial vehicles is, it is a process, not an event.

Along the way, other ideas present themselves as possible breakthroughs, or at least stopgaps, toward reducing greenhouse gas and carbon dioxide emissions from heavy-duty trucks.

“We’re not going to instantaneously stop building diesel over-the-road trucks and replace them all with electric over-the-road trucks,” Larry Burns, an adviser to clean energy businesses and former vice president of research and development and planning at General Motors, told me.

One such solution, which dates to World War II aviation, is operating on a Peterbilt Model 579 in service with Walmart.

San Diego-based Achates Power touts its opposed-piston, two-stroke, compression ignition engines as the only diesel powertrain currently able to meet the coming 2027 standard for reducing nitrogen oxide pollution by 90% compared to current levels.

CARB on board

This is a big deal because no one else has figured out how to affordably reach that mark. Some are looking at adding a second selective catalyst reduction system to trap nitrogen oxide pollution. Achates added no emissions control devices to its engine.

The California Air Resources Board, which otherwise is seeking to get diesel truck engines off the state’s highways by 2040, partially funded the heavy-duty diesel engine Achates developed.  Air quality management districts in California’s South Coast, San Joaquin Valley and Sacramento also provided funding.

First-round Portable Emissions Measurement System test results from the University of California, Riverside, were “far better than other diesel engines we have tested,” according to Kent Johnson, UCR principal investigator of emissions and fuels research.

“This engine … is proof that there are cost-effective technologies available to ensure that trucks in California, and nationwide, can meet these health-protective emission standards as we ramp up the numbers of zero-emission trucks and move away from diesel forever,” CARB Executive Officer Richard Corey said. 

According to Achates, the 10.6-liter engine reduces carbon dioxide by 10% and is engineered for up to 30% better fuel efficiency because of its lower heat losses, improved combustion and reduced pumping losses.

Achates Power is getting positive results in nitrogen oxide emission reductions from its opposed-piston engine. (Photo: Achates Power)

How it works

Opposed-piston engines have two facing pistons per cylinder and a central combustion chamber. Here’s how they work:

  • Explosive fuel burn pushes the pistons apart, and their connecting rods twist separate crankshafts at each end of the cylinder.
  • Pulleys and gears make the crankshafts transfer their power to a single output shaft. 
  • Ports in the cylinders let in air and expel exhaust gases. 
  • The pistons compress and fire every time they meet.

Achates is testing an aged catalyst with the equivalent of 800,000 road miles to see if the technology still meets the coming standard. From a manufacturing standpoint, the opposed-piston engine can use existing facilities, processes, components and supply chains to improve speed to market.

The opposed-piston technology also has military application.

Last July, the U.S. Army awarded Cummins Inc. an $87 million contract to complete development of a modular and scalable advanced combat engine. Achates is providing the fire power — a 50% increase in power density, a 20% reduction in heat exhaust and 13% better fuel efficiency compared to today’s best-in-class combat engine.

Another Cummins partner, Tula Technology, achieved a 74% reduction in nitrogen oxide emissions during testing of its diesel dynamic skip fire technology on a Cummins X15 engine in 2021.

Batteries and infrastructure challenges

What about electrification, then?

Axios reported this week that the shift to electric vehicles will give the U.S. a fresh chance to achieve energy independence. But the complex strategic moves required won’t pay off for years.

Even as more battery plants are announced in the U.S., the demand for electric cars and commercial vehicles far outstrips the coming capacity.

A secure, resilient supply chain for critical minerals and other components is required, Axios wrote. But it won’t be easy. Cathodes and anodes — the two most essential and expensive components of lithium-ion batteries — are produced almost entirely in China. 

Not going anywhere — ‘at this time’

The Information reported this week that Silicon Valley startups are shedding employees to conserve cash. Its analysis counted more than 2,000 job losses at just six companies.

That’s not happening — yet — at several recently public autonomous and electrification startups contacted by FreightWaves.

“We’re not looking to reduce expenses with employee reductions at this time,” an Aurora Innovation spokesperson said. “In fact, we have the runway we need to maintain a robust team through commercialization.”

Aurora (NASDAQ: AUR), which closed at $4.66 a share Thursday, had $1.6 billion in cash on hand at the end of 2021. It is still looking to fill 238 positions in nine locations, according to the careers page on its website.

Electric truck manufacturer Nikola Corp. (NASDAQ: NKLA), which has filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission to raise up to $1.2 billion from the sale of equity, is also adding rather than subtracting employees.

“At this time, Nikola is not planning any significant employee reductions and continues to hire for critical roles,” said Joe Pike, Nikola human resources chief.

Nikola had 1,012 employees as of March, including 159 new hires this year, according to an analyst presentation in March.

Growing headcounts

“We are not planning any employee reductions,” a spokesperson for Embark Trucks (NASDAQ: EMBK) said. “We are continuing to grow our headcount across the entire organization as we prepare for commercialization.”

That despite a lower-than-hoped-for payout from its SPAC business combination and a closing share price of $5.56 on Thursday.

Electric bus and battery pack maker and infrastructure developer Proterra Inc.(NASDAQ: PTRA) is also upbeat on hiring.

“We are actively recruiting and hiring across our business,” a spokesperson said, pointing to plans for construction of a third battery factory expected to begin production in the second half of the year.

In brief …

We looked at used truck pricing and the market earlier this week. One more for the mix: Ritchie Bros. says used tractor prices are up 58% year over year in the U.S.

It is always good to know where you are going, especially when you are riding on battery power. Mack Trucks has introduced a range calculator for electric vehicles to help customers simulate real-world collection routes. Customers can plan and build routes for the Mack LR Electric refuse vehicle based on variables like battery capacity, refuse body application type, ambient temperature, terrain and the number of stops on a specific route.  

Autonomous truck developer Torc Robotics, an independent subsidiary of Daimler Truck, is opening a technology and software development center near the Daimler mothership in Stuttgart, Germany. Torc Europe GmbH will have access to local talent in one of Germany’s prime automotive development regions. Torc also has a presence in Blacksburg, Virginia, where it was founded; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Austin, Texas.

A Torc Robotics test truck in Stuttgart, Germany. (Photo: Torc Robotics)

That’s it for this week. Thanks for reading. Click here to get Truck Tech via email on Fridays.