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Viewpoint: 4 surprising lessons learned from electric truck and bus pilots

By Jim Castelaz

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FreightWaves or its affiliates.

Common advice you hear regarding electric truck and bus pilots include warnings like making sure to check the vehicle specifications and starting infrastructure early. While these might be helpful tips, below we review some real-world learnings and guideposts, which are less commonly discussed but may be critical to companies looking to break into the EV space. 

The reason why advice tends to stay in the abstract is because not many fleets operate many electric trucks and buses on the ground just yet, which is why it is crucial to pull from successful case studies looking to make the transition to EVs. 

In order to share tactical information on how to free fleets on fossil fuels and extend EV fleet life past the pilot era, below are four top learnings from pilot commercial fleet deployments.

1. Rush orders and ROI: Electric trucks unlock new revenue streams 

Over the years, fleets have issued “rush orders” that seem to always follow a clear pattern. The fleets behind these rush orders are using electric trucks to grow their revenue, usually to secure a new customer by delivering their goods in a quiet, zero-emission truck. While this trend is most prevalent among food concessionaires and textile service providers, we expect to see more and more fleets across industries go electric in order to capitalize on this additional revenue driver. 

Especially as the SEC has outlined new rules requiring companies who make green or sustainability promises to quantify and track their progress, delivery companies across the nation now have the opportunity to provide a quantifiably better service with EVs versus their non-electric competitors — all while completing emission-free deliveries. How much is that extra growth potential worth? While some studies say the market could reach $848 billion by 2030, we’ll soon find out it’s worth more than we currently realize. 

2. Show your math: It’s very easy and very costly to overbuild infrastructure 

This happens far too often: not knowing which variables serve as the best infrastructure sizing parameters muddles the math and leads to immense overspending. For example, someone reads the capabilities of a truck or charge station — say 19.2 kW AC charging — and then simply multiplies that capability times the number of charge stations, or number of vehicles. This produces a large number — hundreds of kilowatts, if not megawatts. If you evaluate DC fast charging with this mindset, the numbers get mind-boggling very quickly. And this misstep is not just about the capital needed to install the stations — that’s expensive, but you might be able to find grant or landlord funding to help foot the bill. 

The real cost comes in the operation of these oversized infrastructures. Demand charges mean that you’ll be paying far more to charge your vehicles than you have to. The right way to size infrastructure is not based on capability — it is based on use. You need two key pieces of

information to properly size infrastructure: first, you need to know the daily miles you’ll travel for all vehicles charging at a particular depot or site. Second, you need to know your charging dwell time. Those two numbers will lead you toward economical infrastructure plans that won’t let you down. It is more work upfront to properly size infrastructure in this way, but the results will pay for themselves in installation and operational savings.

3. Don’t be left out in the cold: Charging stations spur cost savings

Speaking of operational savings, EVs are an ally to combat weather-related costs. Of course, temperature plays a big role in any transportation route, but it’s an overlooked instance where having an EV fleet can cut costs for loading dock operations. In many colder climates, delivery trucks need to keep their engines running while they sit at loading docks. This idling drives expensive exhaust systems that must be installed at the loading docks, and even those systems cannot mitigate the pollution 100%. 

With electric trucks, those ventilation systems are no longer needed — a major cost saving for loading dock operations. In fact, there’s a high likelihood that these savings may even lead to “EV only” loading docks, similar to the “EV only” loading zones already found in some cities.

According to McKinsey, the U.S. market for charging electric-vehicle fleets could be worth $15 billion in revenues cost savings per year by 2030.

4. Thumbs up: Drivers love electric trucks

It might not be fair to call this a surprise, exactly, but it’s something often undervalued. Electric trucks have proven to be key recruiting and retention tools for drivers. For truckers, these vehicles are their office, their sales storefront and their break room. Eight or more hours a day — every day. Imagine how much better their day can be when the truck isn’t noisy, vibrating and hot. 

Many drivers also attribute a more comfortable driving experience to regenerative braking, which requires far less physical effort than truck foundation brakes. Once many drivers get in the electric truck, they typically don’t return to fossil fuels.  

Overall, companies weighing the challenges and opportunities of electrifying their fleets should consider otherwise-unreachable revenue growth opportunities. They may also find that infrastructure builds are less daunting when based on use and not capability and that operational savings may be found in unlikely places such as loading dock operating costs.

Finally, many fleets already recognize that going electric can unlock recruiting and retention power. 

The electric truck industry has completely transformed over the course of the last decade, with new learnings continuously popping up as fleets evolve. However, these four lessons can serve as a strong baseline for getting started on fleet electrification pilots.

About the author

Jim Castelaz, founder and chief technology officer of Motiv Power Systems, is an electric vehicle entrepreneur, trained as an electrical engineer with expertise in power and embedded systems. He holds an MSEE from Stanford University and Bachelor of Science in engineering and economics from Harvey Mudd College.