North American sales of electric commercial trucks are minuscule, but a new joint Canadian-American report reveals an ample product pipeline in a market that requires user buy-in to take off

CARS AND TRUCKS MIGHT share the road. But when it comes to what moves buyers of zero-emission vehicles and how manufacturers are approaching their respective markets, that’s where the similarities end.

A critical factor dampening electric car sales in North America, for example, has been a lack of EV options in many popular model categories. But in the world of commercial trucks — where North American sales to date are even more minuscule than cars — it’s a different story.

There, while there’s a more diverse range of models (albeit modest) now available, buyers are more tentative.

This is just one of several takeaways to be drawn from a new report just released by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), the Environmental Defense Fund and Propulsion Québec.

Industry snapshot

The report, called Race to Zero, is a benchmarking project that provides a “snapshot” of the new vehicle sales market for traditionally powered Class 2 to Class 8 heavy-duty trucks and buses and also profiles the early market and product offerings by manufacturer for zero-emission heavy-duty vehicles.

When it comes to zero-emission model availability, specifically, what the report shows is that while the model roster is still far from robust, there are commercially available products in Classes 4 through 8.

“Manufacturers across the industry have made significant investments to bring zero-emission products to market,” the report states.

Even so, zero-emission truck and bus sales in North America in 2019 amounted to just 570 units.

Wait-and-see ethos

“There’s still a kind of wait-and-see ethos in the industry,” explains Ben Sharpe, a senior researcher with ICCT and the report’s principal author, in an exclusive interview with Electric Autonomy Canada. “There’s certainly some early adopters, but the meaty part of the bell curve is made up of fleets that want to see the technology proven in real-world applications by other companies that look like them.”

That’s not stopping truck manufacturers from continuing to work on new and expanded offerings — both individually and, in many cases, in novel partnerships with traditional industry rivals and disruptive startups. By 2023, the report says the number of models in the heavy-duty space is expected to double again.

“All of these manufacturers are seeing the writing on the wall. They see what’s happened on the light-duty side, they hear all the calls from government and society that zero-emission is where things are going, and they’re really wanting to protect where they’re already strong in the market,” says Sharpe.

He points to Daimler as an example.

“They’re the most important player currently in Class 7 and 8 tractor trucks, so they’ve been very active in the [ZEV] space and are going to be rolling out their battery electric truck here over the next several months.”

Market inflection point

Sharpe says the report’s publication coincides with a critical inflection point in the sector’s evolution.

“If governments and society want to transition to zero-emission as soon as possible, we’re really going to have ramp up quickly in commercial vehicles. So, the timeline for fleets getting acquainted and comfortable [with ZEVs] is going to have to be compressed.”

While this situation clearly demands a response from truck buyers and fleet operators, Sharpe says the commercial market’s unique needs also put the onus on governments to roll out a suite of policies to reduce buyers’ obstacles and help with the shift.

“There has to be strident commitment to infrastructure development and end-user outreach,” he says.

The latter is particularly critical.

“Operators, drivers, maintenance personnel — all of these professionals have been working with diesel their entire careers. If the government is telling them, ‘OK, we’re going to a completely new platform and we’re going to do it at a breakneck pace,’ it would be really foolish to say that’s going to be a success without working to get their buy-in.”

Industry engagement essential

A key step, he continues, will be to engage fleet organizations and industry associations and together organize workshops, ride-and-drives and the like.

“It can’t just be the government saying get in line and do this. It has to be a message that comes from within industry, from other fleets, other experts saying, ‘OK, guys, this is a technology that you can believe in,’” says Sharpe.

“Once the other fleets see that these new technologies and vehicles are viable, that’s when you’ll see the market take off.”

With all of that in mind, Sharpe expects to see a much different picture in three to five years.

More trucks in all categories and improved battery technology are givens. As is more significant deployment of hydrogen fuel-cell-powered vehicles. “With so much investment on the hydrogen side now, you’re going to start seeing those products come to market and that picture filling out, particularly the long-range piece of it,” he says.

Beyond those, however, Sharpe highlights two other areas where he expects to see important qualitative and quantitative evolution.

Better product fit will emerge

In terms of products, he foresees a better fit emerging between medium- and heavy-duty vehicles and the needs of the market — a trend that should be a big asset in accelerating sales.

“Most, if not all, of the early products today are really not meant to be one-to-one replacements for diesel vehicles. Particularly when it comes to heavy-duty, long-distance type of operations. The early products there are targeting more the low-hanging fruit in terms of emission profiles. But over the next few years you’re going to start seeing trucks that are a complete one-to-one replacement for diesel — trucks that can do anything that a diesel truck can do in terms of range and in terms of payload.”

The other big advance will see partnerships emerging not just in vehicle development — which, as noted, is already common today — but in infrastructure development.

“That’s going to bring in a whole other ecosystem of players,” says Sharpe. “Utilities, traditional energy giants. That’s where I think the next phase of this evolution is going. You’re going to start to see massive investments on the infrastructure side, as you’ve seen on the vehicle side over the past couple of years.”

This article was originally published on October 30, 2020, on the Electric Autonomy Canada website.