Ford pulled a Steve Jobs at the Work Truck Show last week in Indy, though no one was wearing a black turtleneck. At the end of Ford’s usual Tuesday afternoon press conference, after announcements on a gaseous fuel prep package for the medium duties and an integrated air compressor, there was a Jobs “oh, and-there’s-this” moment: the electric Ford Transit.
This one wasn’t on the PDF that we automotive trade journalists scour before the annual event in Indianapolis. And while it wasn’t quite an Apple iPhone moment, it will be a gamechanger for the work truck industry when it comes to electrification.
This year in Indy there were more tires to kick on electric work trucks than ever before. It would seem then that Ford would be playing catch up when the e-Transit comes to market or might only have a symbolic number of e-Transits for launch in 2022.
Or not? At the Green Truck Summit the day before, Ford’s Michelle Moody said the company will have invested $11 billion in EVs by 2022. This tidal wave of R&D and production retooling has been swelling for years. Regarding production numbers, “We will have enough supply at launch,” said Ted Cannis, global director for electrification for Ford, after the press conference.
Cannis was sure to note another advantage for Ford in any electrification discussion — about 2,100 Ford dealers will be EV certified, providing a sales and service footprint that others can’t match.
The versatility of the e-Transit is of note, with cargo van, cutaway, and chassis cab versions, plus three roof heights and three body lengths. The potential applications are varied and endless, which will no doubt encroach into the intended markets of other electric work truck makers.
Indeed, on the show floor an executive from another OEM admitted that his company’s EV launch “was a bridge to when the larger OEMs reach scale” on electrification.
The Work Truck Show has showcased electrification in a slow, steady increase over its 20-year existence. This year, however, the OEMs and Tier 1 suppliers delivered more serial production dates (2021 and 2022) than ever before.
Morgan Olson introduced a Class 2 walk-in van, the Storm, which will come with an electric version. Utilimaster debuted the Class 3 Velocity M3 with an electric version to come next year. Utilimaster also displayed Reach, an all-electric walk-in van announced last year, which has since undergone months of road testing.
Workhorse, which bought GM’s Lordstown, Ohio plant to make electric vehicles, introduced the C650, a Class 6 all-electric walk-in van.
FCCC debuted a production version of the MT50e all-electric chassis, while Motiv showed off the fifth generation of its F-59 electric chassis, currently in use by Aaramark, Ameripride, Bimbo Bakeries, USPS, and FedEx contractors.
Meanwhile, Chinese electric vehicle maker BYD displayed its electric Class 8 cabover. Seemingly in stealth mode, BYD now has over 100 electric Class 6 and Class 8 tractor trailers in operation in the U.S.
On the light-duty side, XL Hybrids found another OEM partner in General Motors with the announcement of aftermarket hybrid conversions for the Chevrolet Silverado 2500 HD and 3500 HD.
It Takes an Ecosystem
With all the tangible products on the show floor, bringing electric work vehicles to scale will take an eco-system that is still in the early stages.
At the NTEA’s annual breakfast, Ford’s John Ruppert challenged suppliers to meet the needs of electric trucks. “The electrification trend is undeniable,” he said. “Upfitters who understand how to integrate with an electric chassis will have the advantage.”
“Co-creation is essential,” said Sean Waters of Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA) two days earlier at the Green Truck Summit. To that end, Daimler has invested in Proterra to collaborate on heavy-duty electrification for the U.S.
DTNA has more than 30 electric trucks — medium-duty eM2s and heavy-duty eCascadias — in testing with fleets today, with production planned for the fourth quarter of 2021. Daimler is converting its entire Portland plant for electric truck production.
A key part of the ecosystem, charging infrastructure, comes with unique challenges for work trucks: there will be little opportunity for home charging; public charge ports aren’t designed for electric trucks; and with bigger battery packs, they require a lot more juice for a full charge.
Last year Penske Truck Leasing installed DC fast chargers at four of its facilities in Southern California to be able to charge an electric Class 8 tractor in “less than half a shift.”
This is a great flag in the sand, albeit a massively expensive one. While publicly accessible Level 2 chargers for passenger cars expands into the thousands, the infrastructure for trucks isn’t even at the starting gate.
Another challenge is charging standards. With 400,000 commercial trucks sold in a year compared to 17 million passenger cars, there isn’t enough volume to necessitate more than one charging standard.
Bill Combs of Penske relayed that the Charging Interface Initiative (CharIN), a worldwide industry alliance focused on promoting the Combined Charging System (CCS) standard, has a standardized specification that is ready to present to regulatory bodies.
With the massive amounts of electricity flowing through these stations, new safety best practices will emerge. Bill Van Amburg of Calstart said electric trucks aren’t more dangerous, it’s just a different technology. “You’ll need to ‘de-energize’ the truck to service it, and we need to establish technician guidelines,” he said.
The biggest Jersey barrier to electric truck adoption, however, remains the high total cost of ownership. The 12% federal excise tax on all new trucks is not only a disincentive to purchase cleaner technology, it also delivers a higher tax bill for electric trucks as they are more costly. Calls for federal rebates for ZETs (zero emissions trucks) will grow louder.
For the near future, electric trucks will only make sense initially in states with generous incentives such as California. Calstart’s Van Amburg said by 2025 electric trucks will mature into overall TCO parity in 10 to 20 markets, though not first cost parity.
By electrifying a Transit, a ubiquitous work tool with global reach, other commercial vehicle manufacturers will have to plan product development around it.
Today, electric trucks are still essentially hand built. Of any auto manufacturer, Ford has the ability to turn hand built into economies of scale. This is where Ford can truly change the game.