The Switch To Electric Vehicles Can Be Easy

March 22, 2022

It seems like much of the talk about electric vehicles (EV)  in commercial applications centers around the challenges to EV deployment and how hard It is going to be for fleets to make the transition to EVs.

I’ve been in trucking for a long time, so I am not naïve enough to believe that the switch to EVs doesn’t face many obstacles, but one thing we learned from Run on Less – Electric (RoL-E) is that there is at least one use case that is pretty much a no-brainer when it comes to moving from diesel power to battery-electric power. That application is terminal tractors and it is a Class 8 heavy-duty one.

Today, battery-electric terminal tractors are available to directly replace virtually all diesel-powered terminal tractor use cases, with very few operational adjustments needed. But the thing is terminal tractors are a market segment of Class 8 vehicles that many of us don’t understand, and a lot of fleets don’t pay much attention to, especially in terms of tracking costs. Understanding existing costs is critical to determining the economics involved in switching to EVs.

Terminal tractors are both a good use case for battery-electric vehicles and also a good way for fleets to gain some experience with the technology in a very controlled environment. Terminal tractors move multiple trailers around a warehouse, depot, port, or other such location where trailers are stored prior to and after their unloading or loading at a dock. In most applications, they travel very few miles in a day and their average speeds are very low. Mileages for the terminal tractors in RoL-E ranged from 14-29 miles. Frequently, the maximum speed is limited to 15-25 mph.

The duty cycle for many terminal tractors involves a great deal of idling — 30% or more in some cases — which adds to the benefit of switching to battery power. This is even more true because aftertreatment, which does not like idling, is now mandatory on all of these tractors.

There are a lot of factors that need to be considered in order to determine if battery-electric terminal tractors make sense as a replacement for diesel units:

  • Does it make sense on a total cost of ownership (TCO) basis?
  • What is the duty cycle of the diesel-powered units?
  • Can an electrified unit do the same job as the diesel with adequate time for recharging?
  • Does the electrical service to the property support the charging needs of the battery-electric terminal tractors?
  • What incentives are available to offset either the purchase of the vehicle or the purchase price and installation cost of the electrical infrastructure?
  • Does the purchase or lease of a battery-electric terminal tractor support the sustainability goals of the fleet?
  • What are the minimum requirements for upgrading maintenance facilities and support for staff to ensure that the implementation is successful?
  • How should the vehicle(s) be tracked to understand if they are meeting requirements and goals for the operation?

While these are not yes/no questions, terminal tractors tick the box on many of these questions. While it may be hard to make the TCO case without incentives, when you factor in some of the less obvious advantages including the fact that drivers love them and that they are a great place to learn about electric powered vehicles, it becomes clear that terminal tractors are an ideal market for a fleet to begin its electrification journey.

The operation piece is easy — they can be one-for-one replacements for diesel units with almost no changes to business as usual. The infrastructure piece is easy — existing electric power at the terminal can be used and drivers can opportunity charge the units when they are on breaks, which extends the amount of time the terminal tractors can operate. This is a big plus in operations where terminal tractors run nearly 24 hours a day.

Ultimately, I think in some cases the conversion to battery-electric vehicles maybe easier than we think, and from what I learned at the recent Technology & Maintenance Council meeting, lots of folks are working hard on figuring out how to eliminate or mitigate the obstacles.

Terminal tractors and battery-electric power go together, and I suspect that for other applications — package delivery for one — they also are an easy choice.