EV Alliances

Fleet operators and small businesses that make deliveries are racing ahead in adopting electric vehicles, even as a lack of charging stations has hampered a consumer rollout of emission-free cars and trucks.
Ford Mustang Mach-E
White Lightning: The all-electric Ford Mustang Mach-E, the first SUV based off the popular sports car, is set to debut in 2021. Prices start at $42,895. // Courtesy of Ford

Life in America went through major changes this past year due to COVID-19, and some things will likely never return to what we once thought of as normal. But there are bright spots beyond the gloom of the pandemic — namely, a drop in pollution levels as more people shelter in place or work remotely.

Harmful emissions will trend further downward as more people shop from home. In every corner of America, package delivery trucks have become a more common sight — and sound — in residential neighborhoods. Overall, home deliveries are more efficient as fewer consumers make individual trips to their favorite stores.

There’s another pollution-reduction offering coming down the pike, as the familiar rumble of gasoline or diesel engines roaring through subdivisions will soon transcend into a gentle hum.

Starting in 2021, Amazon plans to take delivery of the first all-electric van built by EV startup Rivian, based in Plymouth Township. By 2030, the online retail giant expects to have 100,000 electric-powered delivery vehicles in operation across the U.S. 

Amazon also has lined up an order for nearly 2,000 additional electric vans from Mercedes-Benz that will be put into service in Europe. “To help achieve zero emissions across its business by 2040, Amazon is transforming its transportation network around the world,” the company announced in October as it revealed the first running Rivian prototype.

Amazon isn’t alone. UPS, FedEx, and other delivery services also plan to shift large portions of their own fleets to battery power.

At the same time, companies like Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn have long offered small trucks and delivery vans like the Transit, but now the storied automaker is seeking to drive new revenue from EV telematics offerings.

In November, Ford announced an expansion of its fleet management tools to provide electric vehicle data, charging reports, and web-based pre-conditioning of interior cabin temperatures, as well as new features that can help secure vehicles and enhance driver performance.

Ford Commercial Solutions is offering the tools through app and web-based interfaces. The features will be available on an all-electric version of the popular Transit, called the E-Transit, that’s set to debut in fall 2021.

The new tools will allow fleet operators to monitor the performance of individual vans, manage energy usage, and gain key insights into their performance. Using electric-vehicle-specific data such as kilowatt hour consumption, charge speed, distance to empty, and more, managers can better understand how they’re operating in real time in order to help optimize running costs and uptime.

The features also enable remote pre-conditioning so fleet operators can optimize cabin temperature while the E-Transit is plugged in, to increase battery efficiency. In addition, alerts notify managers if a vehicle isn’t plugged in when it’s scheduled to be, while other tools let them remotely manage transactions for public charging and ensure they receive reports to support reimbursement for employees who charge at home.

2022 GMC Hummer EV
Backtrail Warrior: The 2022 GMC Hummer EV, to be built at GM’s Factory Zero Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Center, will have a starting MSRP of $112,595. // Courtesy of General Motors

One of the new tools is in-vehicle, real-time driver coaching through the SYNC 4 voice assistant. When drivers exceed a speed limit, rapidly accelerate, brake harshly, leave the engine running while parked, or fail to fasten a seatbelt, they’ll receive an in-car audio message asking them to correct their behavior.

“We’ve heard directly from our customers how important driver coaching systems are to them,” says Julius Marchwicki, COO of Ford Commercial Solutions. “By integrating this service directly into our vehicles, businesses can better promote safe driving behavior, optimize energy usage on their vehicles, and reduce wear and tear without installing extra hardware.”

Additionally, Ford Telematics will enable customers to secure and remotely monitor their vehicles after hours. Alerts will notify fleet operators if a vehicle is potentially being stolen, if it’s being used without authorization, if it’s being towed, or if it’s been damaged while parked. If any of these events occur, GPS tracking allows managers to see the location of their vehicles when they’re turned off.

Ford is also offering integrated Driver ID, giving managers an easy way to associate specific drivers with vehicles. By allowing drivers to enter a driver-specific code into the SYNC screen, fleet managers get an accurate record of which driver is using which vehicle, and can analyze driver-specific performance metrics.

The features build on Ford Telematics’ existing offerings and include GPS tracking and geofencing capabilities, vehicle health alerts, and fuel and energy consumption data. Beyond these new telematics-based services, Ford Commercial Solutions offers Ford Data Services, which provides manufacturer-grade data from vehicles for integration with proprietary software or existing authorized telematics providers without the need for third-party plug-in devices.

On the consumer front, EVs have comprised little more than an asterisk on the automotive sales charts, with only Tesla generating sales in the six-figure range. The pace is expected to accelerate over the next several years, with the arrival of critical new passenger vehicles such as the Ford Mustang Mach-E, the GMC Hummer, and the Volkswagen ID.4, not to mention the Tesla Cybertruck pickup.

While attention has largely been focused on the light-duty side of the business, namely passenger cars and trucks, many experts now believe the real growth in zero-emission vehicles could come on the commercial trucking side (emissions still occur at coal and natural gas plants that produce electricity).

Things have gotten a bit quieter on Brooklyn’s residential streets of late, especially on days when trash is picked up. While there’s still the clatter and clang of garbage cans, New York’s Department of Sanitation has been testing out a new generation of nearly silent, all-electric refuse vehicles developed by Mack Trucks. The Big Apple may soon start phasing out its existing fleet and replace it with Mack’s LR Electric model.

On the other side of the country, meanwhile, the Port of Long Beach recently marked the opening of a major new accessway with a procession of 30 hydrogen, electric, and natural gas trucks, part of the new Clean Truck Program aimed at cleaning up one of the worst sources of air pollution in the greater Los Angeles region. Guidelines passed a year ago by California regulators aim to phase out gas and diesel trucks entirely — not just at the ports of Long Beach and L.A., but across the state.

“I think we’re at the precipice,” says Rachel Moses, director of commercial services for Electrify America in Reston, Va., which operates the largest DC fast-charging network in the country. The electrification of “the medium and heavy- duty truck market is growing rapidly” and, if anything, Moses believes it could outpace the growth of the electric passenger car market during the rest of the decade.

2022 GMC Hummer EV
2022 GMC Hummer EV // Courtesy of General Motors

Virtually every major truck company, from Freightliner to Peterbilt to Mack to Kenworth, has a zero-emission program in the works. So do a number of upstart brands like Tesla, Nikola, and Rivian. Ford and General Motors Co. in Detroit also have confirmed plans to bring battery-electric delivery vans to market and may enter other market segments, as well. Even Cummins, one of the world’s largest suppliers of truck engines, has begun working on electric drive alternatives such as its PowerDrive portfolio, which targets the medium-duty market.

In fact, some of the biggest news has come in the medium-duty market, where PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay division became one of the first customers for the Peterbilt 220EV in January 2020. “Frito-Lay is continuously exploring current and emerging technologies for our freight equipment as we work toward reducing PepsiCo’s absolute greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by 2030,” says Michael O’Connell, supply chain chief at PepsiCo.

The 335-horsepower truck uses a 148-kilowatt-hour battery pack with a range of 100 miles, and has a charging time of as little as one hour. Arch-rival Navistar, meanwhile, is building an order bank for its eMV truck that can be equipped with several different battery packs, offering up to 250 miles per charge. Daimler’s eM2 model isn’t far behind, with a range of 230 miles (the company has already started fielding order for some of those rigs through Penske Truck Leasing, a company owned by Roger Penske, chairman and CEO of Penske Corp. in Bloomfield Township).

Last October, the commonwealth of Virginia took delivery of the first of 50 all-electric school buses as part of its Dominion Energy Electric School Bus Program. Eventually, the state’s fleet could go entirely electric, officials say.

“We believe electric school buses to be the future of pupil transportation,” says Caley Edgerly, president and CEO of Thomas Built Buses, a large supplier of school buses in the U.S. “They offer quieter operation, lower operating costs, and zero emissions, to the benefit of students, parents, school districts, and local communities.”

EV experts believe the light- and medium-duty commercial truck markets are particularly ripe for electrification because today’s lithium-ion battery technology can readily handle day-to-day needs, especially for fleet customers who can set up their own quick charging operations. But even the heavy-duty market is ripe for electrification.

Daimler-owned Freightliner has rolled out the Class 8 eCascadia, along with the slightly smaller eM2 Series. AB Volvo, the parent of Sweden’s Volvo Trucks, as well as U.S.-based Mack, recently announced plans to start selling a limited number of heavy-duty trucks in Europe in 2021, with volume ramping up the following year. Volvo plans to have its entire product range fossil-free by 2040.

But established truck manufacturers are facing the same challenge as traditional automakers hoping to make the jump from internal combustion to battery propulsion: a wave of new startups. Tesla has big plans for its own Class 8 rig, the all-electric Semi, and has lined up a long list of orders well ahead of the truck’s production launch. That includes an initial order for 150 Semis by Pride Group Enterprises, a Dallas-based truck leasing company that also took out an option for 500 more — a deal that eventually could be worth $100 million.

Walmart Canada has placed its own order for 130 of the battery trucks. “Tripling our (initial) reservation of Tesla Semi trucks is part of our ongoing effort to innovate the business and prioritize sustainability,” says John Bayliss, senior vice president of logistics at Walmart. “By converting 20 percent of our fleet to electric vehicles by the end of 2022 and committing to alternative power for all fleet vehicles by 2028, we’re putting safety, innovation, and sustainability at the forefront of our logistics network.”

Some observers remain skeptical about the market for the heaviest and longest-range battery trucks, pointing to dreaded range anxiety and the lack of a nationwide charging network. Tesla is working to address that in several ways, including setting up high-power chargers at the thousands of Supercharger stations it already operates across North America. Like some of its competitors, Tesla is also exploring the possibility of swapping out battery packs on the Semi — a process that could have a rig back on the road in minutes rather than hours.

Phoenix-based Nikola also has an alternative strategy. Its Nikola One relies on hydrogen fuel cells rather than batteries. Think of a fuel cell as a “refillable battery”; the technology blends hydrogen with oxygen from the air we breathe to generate a current that runs the same motors used in a pure battery-electric vehicle. Nikola’s design can deliver as much as 1,000 miles on a tank of hydrogen and refill it in minutes — on par with the range of a diesel truck. The downside is there are even fewer hydrogen stations than there are battery chargers, but the startup says it will borrow a page from the Tesla playbook and set up a refueling network along key transportation routes.

2021 Rivian R1S
Lean Green Machine: The 2021 Rivian R1S has a starting price of around $70,000 and offers a range of more than 300 miles. // Courtesy of Rivian

Nikola isn’t alone. Toyota recently announced a partnership with Hino to develop new fuel-cell-powered semis, and it already has launched a small fleet of prototypes at the ports in Long Beach and Los Angeles. “This isn’t just a science experiment,” says Bob Carter, executive vice president of Toyota Motor North America. “The goal is to make a difference in society, to remove pollution, and to improve the air quality in and around the Port of Los Angeles.”

As little as two or three years ago, this all might have seemed unlikely. Companies tinkering with electric trucks were largely doing so for public relations purposes. But, in the process, they began to discover there was a serious business case to be made. Despite the higher initial investment costs, battery-powered trucks “just make sense because there’s almost an immediate return on investment.”

What matters most to fleet operators is a vehicle’s day-to-day operating costs, Carter stresses, and fleet managers have discovered that, on a per-mile basis, EVs have a significant advantage, especially as the cost of batteries keeps coming down.

Reducing energy costs offers a significant advantage, especially for fleets operating depots where they can charge up at off-peak hours and negotiate lower rates with local utilities, adds Electrify America’s Moses. Battery drive systems also are proving to be far more reliable than internal combustion powertrains. An EV propulsion system has 10 percent of the parts of conventional gasoline powertrains, which means less downtime for maintenance — there’s no need for oil and filter changes, for example.

A recent study released by Consumer Reports indicated that all-electric passenger vehicles cost barely half as much to operate annually. It’s still too early to get clear numbers from the commercial sector, but researchers at Consumer Reports say they expect similar savings on commercial trucks. And that’s before the tax breaks and other subsidies that truck manufacturers and fleet operators may qualify for. The federal government has already signaled its interest in incentivizing the switch to zero-emissions transportation.

There are other reasons why truck manufacturers and their customers see an electrified future — notably the prospect of tough new fuel economy and emissions standards. Last June, California announced first-of-its-kind guidelines covering a broad range of truck segments, from medium-duty models up to the Class-8 semis that move vast amounts of goods throughout the state and across the country.

The rules begin to phase in by 2024 and, by the middle of the following decade, fully 100 percent of government fleets and last-mile delivery trucks sold in the Golden State, along with 75 percent of other delivery trucks and vans, would have to use zero-emissions powertrain technology.

If the California market weren’t big enough to drive the industry, officials in 15 states, as well as the District of Columbia, have since agreed to adopt the California plan. “Now is the time to act,” says Ned Lamont, governor of Connecticut, one of the states signing on to the agreement. A group statement noted the trucking industry is reaching “an important transition point” as more and more clean alternatives come to market.

Until recently, such efforts received significant pushback from the business community. But while Glen Kedzie, environmental affairs counsel for American Trucking Associations, raised concerns about the pace the California mandate is setting, he said the industry does, on the whole, support the effort to “decarbonize freight transportation” during a recent hearing.

One way or another, “Fleet operators see the writing on the wall,” and know they’re going to need to switch to battery and hydrogen alternatives, Moses says. The regulatory environment will be the stick, she and other experts believe, but plunging operating costs will be the carrot that will encourage the trucking industry to embrace the switch.

As for consumers, the mass market appeal of EVs awaits a robust national network of charging stations and “fill ups” comparable in speed to filling a gas tank.

Keep On Truckin’

If electric vehicles bring to mind a quirky little hatchback like the Nissan Leaf or Chevrolet Bolt, prepare yourself for the new GMC Hummer. It looks just as rugged as anything the old Hummer division brought to market before the brand was shut down following General Motors Co.’s 2009 bankruptcy.

The big difference, though, is that the new Hummer, to be built at the Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Center (dubbed Factory Zero) and set to roll into GMC showrooms in mid-2021, is all-electric. It will offer as much as 1,000 horsepower and 10,000 pound-feet of torque, and be able to launch from 0-60 nearly as fast as the latest Chevrolet Corvette.

While battery-electric vehicles, or BEVs, have yet to gain significant traction in the U.S. market, automakers are betting they’re about to reach the proverbial tipping point. And while there are plenty of electric sedans, sports cars, and SUVs coming to market over the next few years, there’s a veritable tsunami of battery pickups in the work.

Consider that GM not only plans to roll out the GMC Hummer EV, starting with the brawny Edition 1 model set to start at $113,000, but it’s working up a second electric pickup for the Chevrolet brand. Ford, meanwhile, is countering with an all-electric version of its ever-popular F-150, set to go on sale in 2022. Beyond significant hauling power, Ford has applied for a patent on a range-extender system.

While slow to plug in, Mike Manley, CEO of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, which operates its North American headquarters in Auburn Hills, last October confirmed the Ram truck brand will get a battery-powered pickup, with more details to come.

Beyond the Big Three, the hometown players are facing an unprecedented assault from new entrants into the truck market.

Other local companies stepping into the fray include Rivian in Plymouth Township, a startup that has generated huge interest and is readying two new BEVs: the R1S SUV and the R1T pickup.

Oak Park’s Bollinger, in turn, has announced a similar pair of products. Its B2 pickup is a brutish, no-frills, heavy-duty model envisioned as a true work truck.

Over in Ohio, another startup, Lordstown Motors, is readying a pickup dubbed Endurance, which takes the unusual approach of building its motors into its wheels. Then there’s Nikola, the Phoenix- based firm that plans to debut the Badger. It will offer  a battery drive system or a hybrid hydrogen fuel-cell and battery system.

Still others want a piece of the high-voltage action. They include startups like Atlis, with its $45,000 XT pickup; Hercules Electric, with its Alpha; and China’s Neuron EV, which wants to import what it dubs the T.One. Fisker, meanwhile, which will debut the Ocean SUV in 2022, is teasing a pickup that it calls the Alaska. Lucid Motors has also said it’s eyeing the prospects for a pickup, and three other established brands could follow, as well: Volkswagen, Toyota, and Nissan.

In turn, Tesla, which is based in California, is getting ready to debut a pickup — its Cybertruck looks like it rolled out of a “Mad Max” movie. Tesla claims to have lined up several thousand advance orders for the truck, which, it promises, will deliver up to 500 miles of range and power.

In all, we could see as many as 13 different players in the electric pickup market by mid-decade, though few industry analysts expect all these projects to come to fruition.