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A look at a Cumminsbuilt allelectric prototype Class 7 tractor Photo Sean KilcarrAmerican Trucker
<p>A look at a Cummins-built all-electric prototype Class 7 tractor. (<em>Photo: Sean Kilcarr/American Trucker</em>)</p>

The electrification push for heavy trucks

Rapid decline in battery prices along with a broad regulatory effort by California may help make electric power a much more affordable energy source for commercial vehicles.

Manufacturers that build cars and heavy trucks alike increasingly believe electricity – whether as stand-alone power or as part of a hydrogen-based fuel cell system – will play a critical role in powering motor vehicles in the not-so-distant future.

At the recent North American Commercial Vehicle (NACV) show, Jay Craig – president and CEO of Meritor – noted that the cost of a 100 kilowatt per hour (KwH) battery pack declined from $120,000 in 2009 to $25,000 today, with predictions that costs will drop to $15,000 by 2025.

That low costs can make electricity a more affordable power solution for a heavy-duty vehicle, he explained, which is why Meritor is now developing a platform of electric drive axles and suspensions as well as supporting systems.

“Essentially, we’re focusing on integrating an electric motor into the differential carrier,” Craig said during a presentation at NACV. "As we look to future emissions regulations and our customers’ desire for more efficiency, we’re developing new and innovative solutions to expand our product portfolio."

He added that Meritor’s flexible “e-carrier” design will be the foundation for various drivetrain configurations, including full electric, hybrid, single or tandem axles with various options based on application.

But it’s not just heavy-duty vehicles that are being redesigned with electricity in mind.

General Motors believes in an all-electric future,” emphasized Mark Reuss, executive vice president of product development, purchasing and supply chain for General Motors this week.

“Although that future won't happen overnight, GM is committed to driving increased usage and acceptance of electric vehicles through no-compromise solutions that meet our customers' needs,” he said.

In the next 18 months, Reuss noted that GM will introduce two new all-electric vehicles based off learnings from the Chevrolet Bolt EV compact car. They will be the first of at least 20 new all-electric vehicles that will launch by 2023.

However, given customers' various needs, he aid getting to a zero emissions future will require more than just battery electric technology. It will require a two-pronged approach to electrification — battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell electric depending on the unique requirements.

That’s why GM also introduced SURUS this week, which is short for the “Silent Utility Rover Universal Superstructure.” SURUS is a fuel cell powered, four-wheel steer concept vehicle on a heavy-duty truck frame that’s driven by two electric motors.

With its capability and flexible architecture, SURUS could be used as a delivery vehicle, truck or even an ambulance — all emissions free, Reuss added.

Where commercial vehicles are concerned, Richard Mihelic, president of Mihelic Vehicle Consulting, noted in a recent presentation that “niche markets” within trucking, specifically in short-haul and local vocations, and not the linehaul market which makes up the majority of the industry will be the first to adopt electrified trucks.

He added that while electric commercial vehicles may cost two to three times more than a comparable diesel vehicle, that “sticker shock” doesn’t tell the whole story as they are not being manufactured at scale and that many in the industry “do not fully appreciate” that diesel engines and associated emissions aftertreatment systems are both heavy and costly to maintain.

On top of that, he said California has set a target of deploying 100,000 zero-emission commercial vehicles by 2030, which could set the industry on a path toward realizing economies of scale and establishing clearer cost-benefit analyses.

Thus, to that end, Meritor’s Craig said his company is focusing on developing several new “electrified” products to be ready for such developments if and when they occur:

  • An integrated two-speed electric carrier platform capable of delivering 150 to 200 kilowatts of continuous power for mounting on existing axle platforms. That will allow it to fit a wide variety of applications on rigid and independent suspensions
  • An electrified version of its popular 13X tandem axle called the “13Xe,” which will be a rigid axle, capable of 200 kilowatts of continuous power and featuring customizable gearing to cover linehaul, school bus, refuse, pickup and delivery, utility and other applications
  • Electricity-driven independent suspensions for applications such as military, emergency, off-highway and construction vehicles that will benefit from increased performance as well as better ride comfort and handling
  • An electric eCorner module for low-floor applications such as medium-duty Class 4 and 5 trucks, pickup and delivery vehicles, plus transit buses.

The company is developing air disc braking systems specifically for what it calls “e-axles,” for us in hybrid or all-electric trucks; braking packages designed to reduce weight on wheel-ends, according to Craig.

Those components will be part of a demonstration vehicle to be built in 2018, with production beginning as early as 2019.

“These emerging electric solutions reflect Meritor’s commitment to develop axle, suspension and brake technologies that support our technology roadmaps and future product plans based on our customers’ needs,” Craig said.

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