Wes Mays's picture

Aug 8, 2017

By:

Wes Mays, PE

Director, Product Innovation

Trucking and transportation, the industry that consumes nearly a third of the nation’s energy, has been trying for better than 50 years to balance the reduction of that consumption while still trying to keep up with the nation’s booming demand for transportation and travel service. Finally, those consumption numbers may begin to start bending downward.

Historically electricity has provided only a tiny sliver of the energy used in the transportation industries; mostly limited to use in the small light rail sector. And even with the emergence of hybrid and fully electric cars in recent years, electricity has remained largely inconsequential as a transportation fuel.

But electricity soon could emerge as the surprise technology that finally leads the nation toward significant energy sustainability. And it could be the trucking industry leading the way. No one is talking about converting the nation’s 15.5 million commercial trucks to electric power almost overnight. But the very shape of trucks and the economics of the industry are key reasons why trucks could be the thing that leads America toward much wider spread use of electric-powered vehicles.

Many carriers are already using solar in some capacity

For more than a decade Americans have been buying cars with hybrid or fully electric engines. But the popularity of fully electric cars always has been severely limited by short battery life issues and the serious lack of a re-charging infrastructure. Meanwhile, hybrid-electric vehicles have suffered from a combination of high sticker prices, significant battery maintenance challenges, and perceived power and torque performance issues. 

At the same time, operators of big trucks have avoided electric vehicles almost entirely for those same reasons, which are all even bigger negatives for over-the-road trucks than for family cars. Only in the last few years have a small number of truck operators begun experimenting with electric-powered yard trucks that never venture far from their recharging stations.

But increasingly truck owners and operators are finding ways to use solar energy to generate the electricity needed to run truck systems other than the engines. Increasingly, keen-eyed motorists are spotting black tiles mounted on the roofs of truck cabs or on the top of trailers. Those tiles are flexible photovoltaic energy collectors that can generate enough electricity during the day to drive cab environmental and technology systems, or even run a refrigerated unit’s generator.  They also can, in many cases, charge a bank of batteries that can be switched on to keep those systems running when the sun is not shining or when the truck’s engine is shut off. 

When the truck is off, solar-powered batteries can generate not only electricity but big cost savings by allowing truckers to not burn fuel to operate diesel generators. And even when the truck is running, the use of onboard solar energy to run environmental, technology or refrigeration systems can reduce the amount of fuel burned by the truck’s engine and save money. 

A number of vendors now provide after-market solar generation equipment that can be mounted with relative ease on trucks. And, more and more, manufacturers are delivering trucks from the factory pre-wired for add-on solar systems or offering solar kits as factory options. So while it’s unlikely that solar energy could ever be used to generate enough electricity to run the engine in a big rig, using it to provide auxiliary power isn’t insignificant.

Tesla’s electric big rig could be the game changer

And a potentially huge development may be just around the bend. In September, Elon Musk’s Tesla is expected to unveil its first fully electric semi. Musk, who has spent the last 10 years slowly building a series of three electric cars promised earlier this year at his company’s annual shareholders meeting that Tesla would build a heavy duty, long range, semi-truck that would have both the range and the weight hauling capability of today’s largest conventional diesel tractors.

Musk insisted that the Tesla solar electric truck will not only have the massive and sophisticated batteries necessary for long haul operations, it also will have more pulling power than the highest torque diesel semi on the market today.  It remains unclear whether Tesla’s truck—which apparently will fit in the 80,000-pound class—will be able to haul as much product as conventional trucks. That’s because batteries weigh a lot and their weight potentially could take up a bigger percentage of that 80,000-pound limit than is the case with conventional trucks.

And Tesla is not alone. Nikola Motor Company is developing the Nikola One, a hydrogen powered, electric drive truck that they claim has half the operating cost of a diesel rig.

Energy cost savings should drive adoption

But if the load hauling capabilities are even close to comparable with either of these new trucks, the theoretically huge fuel cost savings could make such a vehicle very popular. Even with the significantly higher price tag these electric trucks would carry, owners and operators may well determine that the fuel cost savings more than compensate for the higher purchase price and any associated financing costs.

And if that happens, the transportation industry’s share of energy consumption could begin to fall rapidly.  In 2016 transportation — including trucking, rail, buses, shipping and autos — used 29 percent of the nation’s consumed energy.  Diesel accounted for 21 percent of all transportation fuels. And trucks, obviously, are the biggest users of diesel (well ahead of trains, most of which burn diesel to generate the electricity that drives their wheels).

None of this means that today’s big diesel rigs will be outmoded by 2023, three years after the expected launch of sales for Tesla’s electric truck. It will take years or even decades to produce enough vehicles to replace today’s fleet.

But, for the first time, it’s now possible to see a day when the trucking industry will be leading the way in adopting practical, affordable renewable/sustainable fuel and related technology. Yes, Tesla’s truck vision could turn out to be a failure or a market flop for any number of reasons. But even if that happens, the technology is advancing so quickly, and the benefits of using electricity to power this country’s critical cargo transportation system are so obvious, that it’s now safe to say that the future is in sight.

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