If it seems to you that the trucking industry has been talking about electric trucks for years, that's because it has.
Electric powertrains have been around since 1888. Being an early technology adopter, the U.S. Postal Service tested electric trucks soon after. However, due to range limitations and charge times, they never were adopted.
In 1966 General Motors Co. introduced its Electrovan, the first vehicle to be powered by a hydrogen fuel cell.
Unfortunately, since the equipment required to power the van filled its entire cargo area and turned it into a two-seater, explosive incidents occurred during testing and the cost of the platinum used in it made it extremely expensive, the Electrovan was mothballed and never sold.
In case you don't know much about batteries and fuel cells used to power vehicles, the chemical energy in an electric vehicle battery usually comes from metals and their ions that are present in the battery. These batteries are typically lithium-ion batteries, are rechargeable and are designed for a high kilowatt-hour capacity.
A fuel cell used in an electric truck takes hydrogen gas that is stored in a tank and converts it into electricity, which then powers the vehicle. Fuel cells can produce electricity continuously for as long as hydrogen and oxygen in the air are supplied.
Fueling a fuel-cell-powered truck is similar to pumping natural gas. An advantage of fuel cells is that they are lighter than lithium-ion battery packs.
However, hydrogen is expensive to produce, which is why it has not been as successful as batteries. A longtime joke in the industry is that hydrogen fuel cells are the fuel of the future — and always will be.
However, there is room in the trucking industry for both technologies, depending on the application.
Since those early days of fuel-cell and electric-vehicle batteries, technology has made significant progress in increasing energy density in batteries and battery life, but in the last year or two advances in electric-vehicle technology have increased at warp speed.
Lithium-ion battery packs cost about $1,183 per kilowatt hour back in 2010. Today it's more like $156 per kilowatt hour and soon it will be less than $100 per kilowatt hour.
Late last year, Nikola Corp. announced details of a battery featuring energy density more than double that of lithium-ion battery cells. This new battery technology could double the range of electric passenger cars to up to 600 miles with little or no increase to battery size and weight.
Nikola's battery-electric trucks can drive 800 miles fully loaded between charges, while trucks could weigh 5,000 pounds less than competitive models. This technology also doubles the range of hydrogen fuel-cells.
In addition to this good news, the company also said it would not protect this technology with a patent in order to spur the development and acceptance of electric vehicles globally.
A major driver of electric-powered vehicles is government regulations and incentives for the adoption of cleaner and zero-emission vehicles. In Europe there are around 200 cities with access regulations and low-emission zones.
France and the United Kingdom have announced bans on fossil-fuel vehicle sales starting in 2040. These bans have forced truck manufacturers to include electric trucks in their product lines now and initiate the shift to electric trucks from conventional diesel-powered ones.
The incentives for adoption of zero-emission trucks along with low-emission zones are driving fleets to replace diesel trucks with cleaner options in Europe now.
While these incentives are for now on the other side of the "pond," keep in mind that nearly all truck manufacturers operate globally and low-emission zones are being considered by a few cities in North America.