Electric dreams our new reality
ANYONE who believes the rumble of the trusty diesel engine is going to be around for a long time might want to think again because that noise off in the distance is the silence of electricity.
The heavy vehicle industry as we know it is set to be turned on its head. 'If' may soon become 'when' and long-term plans are starting to be re-evaluated.
Late last year Tesla electric car boss Elon Musk revealed the stunning 'Semi' electric truck prototypes with claims of an 800-plus kilometre range, zero vehicle emissions, improved air quality, running cost reductions of about 17 cents per kilometre compared to a conventional diesel-engined unit, and stunning performance.
A vehicle, in other words, capable of revolutionising the road transport industry as we know it.
Science fiction? Wishful thinking? No. Musk says Semi, which is already hauling Tesla battery packs 420km from Nevada to California, will be in production next year.
The company is already holding orders for more than 2000 units, with several big companies on the waiting list.
Tesla is not alone. Competitors already developing their own electric trucks include Volkswagen Group, Einride, Cummins, Daimler, Nikola Motor Company, Toyota, BYD, Kenworth, and Proterra.
Closer to home, Isuzu Australia has developed a pilot program for electric trucks in conjunction with Australian EV specialist SEA Electric to test the viability of electric trucks Down Under.
With the trucking industry on the brink of electrification, the Australian Logistics Council (ALC) has formed an Electric Vehicles Working Group to develop what it calls the 'rapidly-evolving transport solution' and manage the effect it will have on future freight movement.
Showing it is taking the changes seriously, the group's initial 14-strong membership - which includes Linfox, Woolworths, DHL Australia and Australia Post - is set to quickly grow, according to ALC interim chief executive officer, Lachlan Benson.
"The core membership of the group is primarily comprised of logistics companies,” Lachlan Benson said. "However, each of those companies obviously has engagement with companies in each of the other sectors mentioned and, as a result of decisions made at the first meeting, representatives of those other sectors will have opportunities for involvement in the group's forward work program.”
The EV Working Group is focusing on the shortest timeframe possible but the pathway to achieving that, says Lachlan Benson, will depend entirely on industry confidence in the types of vehicles, their affordability and their fitness for purpose.
The group not only wants to promote the financial, social and environmental benefits of EVs to industry and governments but to also help develop policies promoting their uptake and manufacture.
Linfox executive chairman Peter Fox believes technology advances will create opportunities within the road transport industry and the electric technologies now becoming common in passenger cars will play into the take-up of commercial electric vehicles.
Writing in a recent edition of Linfox's Solutions Asia-Pacific magazine, Mr Fox said while current battery technology would initially restrict electric heavy vehicle usage, an exponential increase would come over time.
"Reduced consumption of diesel fuel is good business,” Mr Fox said. "We will gain cleaner transportation with zero emissions and not sacrifice performance.
"Linfox's GreenFox program has already reduced our total emissions across the Asia-Pacific region by more than 50percent (and) electric vehicles will allow us to go much further.”
Electrification is not a totally new concept in the Australian heavy vehicle mix. Toyota-owned Hino has been selling its 300 Series Hybrid light-duty truck for more than a decade.
Using the serial hybrid technology developed for Toyota and Lexus passenger cars, it mates a 100-kilowatt, 4.0-litre turbo-diesel with a 36-kilowatt electric motor. Compared to its conventional counterpart, the Hino Hybrid uses less fuel and produces lower levels of exhaust emissions.
A four-year internal study by TNT Australia comparing 29 of its hybrid Hinos to 29 conventional trucks showed an annual carbon dioxide reduction of 112 tonnes, with the hybrids emitting 39 fewer grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre.
Iveco Australia marketing manager, Darren Swenson, said interest in alternative fuels and powertrains in Australia is growing.
"Our local market is following a global trend that is seeing growing awareness about diesel fuel alternatives for commercial vehicle applications,” he said.
Europe's love affair with diesel is on the wane with many institutions and governments shunning it and introducing policies encouraging fleets to convert to environmentally friendly technologies.
At next month's IAA show in Hanover, Germany, Iveco will underscore its alternative energy commitment by showcasing its alternative drivetrain technologies.
Daimler recently unveiled two fully electric Freightliner trucks and plans to have 30 working electrics, split between the medium-duty Freightliner eM2 106 and heavy-duty Freightliner eCascadia, on test with customers by the end of the year.
And the cost of moving away from existing equipment and into the brave new world of clean power? Tesla estimates its two 'Semi' variants will cost around $200,000 and $243,000 respectively.
How the anticipated higher equipment costs will affect private owners and small companies needing the latest equipment to stay competitive is anyone's guess but Lachlan Benson suggests that while the upfront price of the new tech is higher than comparable internal combustion-engined units, the life-cycle cost will be cheaper long-term.
"That is a point that needs to be clearly demonstrated for industry participants and governments, which is something the (Electric Vehicle) Working Group will focus on,” he adds.
If nothing else the EV discussion is formulating serious plans from all quarters.
In a recent submission to the Senate Select Committee, local EV manufacturers SEA Electric and ACE-EV called for a range of reforms to make ownership easier. The main issues facing EV uptake are cost, legislated deterrents and preferential access and they suggest that while ownership attractions are being recognised, buyer assistance needs to be addressed.
SEA Electric managing director Tony Fairweather said there is a need for a honeymoon period on registration and stamp duty costs, 'early adopter' grants and purchase cost rebates, preferential support from insurance and finance institutions, fixed-price charging costs and a media campaign explaining the facts of EV ownership.
"It has been frustrating to see the level of activity globally yet the limited activity domestically in respect to supporting this sector,” he told the Senate Committee, pointing to the "narrowing window of opportunity” for Australia to position itself well in the EV revolution.
Fairweather's calls are backed by Queensland company ACE-EV, manufacturer of an electric cargo van and light utility, which is also calling for rebates, tax credits, sales tax and registration cost exemptions and preferential lane access for EV owners and drivers.
The company also wants governments to look at frameworks already in place in countries that are further along the EV path with regards to carbon reduction, community uptake, energy security and job growth among its priorities.
It seems the electric vehicle revolution is set to bring the road transport industry into a brave new world and the hardest part will be keeping pace with the emerging and evolving technologies.
The future shouldn't 'shock' though if the industry is prepared to move with the times and prepare for the changes.