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January 25, 2022   |   Diesel Technology Forum

Policy Insider

Factors Driving the Future for Decarbonizing Trucks Are Very Different Than for Electrifying Cars

What can we learn from total cost of ownership analysis for diesel, electric, hydrogen and more?

How similar is a passenger car to an 18-wheeler? Not very. And neither are the factors that influence how much, and when, electric vehicles make sense for consumers versus commercial truckers. Recent analysis of total cost of ownership (TCO) and influencing decision factors sheds new light on this complex discussion and underscores the future value of diesel technology.

Consider factors like purchase price, fuel economy, maintenance, resale value, durability, range, cargo capacity and style/image. An average 18-wheeler runs 100,000 miles or more a year; passenger cars about 13,000. Driving range is a consideration for both. While consumers considering electric vehicles experience driving range anxiety, commercial truckers could experience lost revenue and higher costs to ensure freight delivery. Cargo carrying capacity is a lower concern for consumers considering an electric vehicle, but for truckers is at the core of their business, with lower cargo capacities requiring more trucks to do the same amount of work. 

Consumers are more likely to consider electric vehicles based on non-cost factors like acceleration, style and image. But in the hardscrabble world of trucking, where profits are measured in pennies on the dollar, truckers have to be focused on the bottom line, penciling out the numbers of every decision. Resale value of trucks is a significant factor for most fleets that influences their up-front investments in how they might choose to spec a truck, how long they will keep it and the point at which they can get the highest trade in value.

Recent research by Argonne National Labs and new work by the National Renewable Energy Lab seeking a fair comparison of existing and emerging fuels and technologies for commercial vehicles has shed important light on TCO and spatial and temporal influencing factors evaluating various fuels and powertrain options. The comprehensive studies evaluated battery electric vehicles, fuel cell vehicles, hydrogen, hybrid electric vehicles and diesel.  

Results were found to be highly sensitive to key assumptions about future fuel and energy prices as well as lifetime periods used for calculations. Analyses used representative duty cycles and average values for vehicle miles traveled and could not completely address the variability across fleets or from day to day. They found that fleets requirement for diesel-equivalent performance from alternatives may overlook opportunities in well-suited applications and/or duty cycles for electrification, hydrogen or other fuels. Fleets also valued versatility, which researchers found as hard to monetize.

Researchers noted that future electricity and hydrogen prices should include infrastructure investment costs – perhaps the biggest uncertainty factor in this area. A portfolio of electrification technologies could provide segment-specific solutions and cost-effective pathways to decarbonization. They noted that for some applications, there are electrified powertrains that provide lower TCO than conventional vehicles at today’s component costs while other applications and powertrains are expected to reach parity in the near to mid-term – with continued research and development and cost reductions.

They highlighted that the tools we have to make future decisions about fuels and technology aren’t perfect, are sometimes badly outdated (the last Bureau of Transportation Vehicle operating census was 2002!), and often unable to quantify complex qualitative factors. Longer distance, multi-shift and weight-limited trucking applications are the most challenging to evaluate.

Some applications may require low-carbon liquid fuels for even the longer term. They conclude in part, “This analysis finds that each powertrain technology (diesel, electric, fuel cell, hydrogen) may have an economic advantage on a TCO basis in certain business operating conditions, depending on fuel price realized.”

Find your niche. That’s where we are headed.


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