While Teslas and Chevy Volts increasingly pop up on U.S. roads, trucks haven’t become part of the electric movement. California start-up Motiv Power Systems thinks it can change that.
“It’s really our vision and mission to free trucks and buses from fossil fuels,” says chief executive Jim Castelaz.
So far, it’s slow going. Motiv has been around for five years. It has seven electric trucks on the roads, but one of them is currently in the shop for repairs. The company isn’t profitable yet and relies on grants and investments. Its business is supplying the software and components needed for an electric drive system to truck manufacturers. Motiv customizes the battery set-up so the power fits the demands of a given truck’s job.
Castelaz sees three million medium duty trucks and buses across the United States as obvious replacements for electric trucks. He says the switch could save $100 million of fuel a day.
The city of Chicago is an early customer, having deployed an electric garbage truck on its streets in mid-2014. It has said the truck will save 2,688 gallons of fuel a year. In order to lug its 60,000 pounds around the city, the truck is equipped with 200 kilowatt hours of energy, more than twice the power that you’ll find on a Tesla Model S.
But the truck has spent this month at a facility for repairs after an air compressor struggled to turn on in the bitter Chicago winter. A heater is also being added for the sake of drivers.
Gurdas Sandhu, an N.C. State researcher, cautioned me that replacing garbage trucks with an all-electric powered vehicle is a tall order. While a 60-mile range will work for urban settings, it likely wouldn’t scale nationally as many trucks have to cover much longer distances.
Electric motors may not be the answer to the garbage truck that gets 2 mpg, but electric trucks and buses could have uses elsewhere. Mountain View, Calif. launched a network of Motiv-powered buses earlier this month. The buses are being financed by a wealthy and eco-conscious resident, Google.
Electric buses and trucks aren’t cheap. Kings Canyon Unified School District in California paid $230,000 a pop for two electric school buses from Motiv. The price is about double what a traditional bus would cost. But the thinking is lower fuel and maintenance costs should pay off in the long term.
Its longtime director of transportation, John Clements, estimated that a switch to electric buses would save $10,000 a year, as electric buses don’t require diesel fuel, oil changes, transmission fluid or air and oil filters. Brake life would be longer too due to regenerative braking, which charges the batteries. But so far the gains haven’t lived up to that as oil prices have dropped and the electric technology has gone through growing pains.
“As stewards of our environment we feel like we should be doing the right thing,” said Clements, whose e-mail signature calls him “The Electric Bus & Truck Evangelist.” The EPA has honored him for his work.
In May 2013, after 20 years on the job, he retired to fully commit himself to fighting for the electric truck and bus movement. He advises companies in the space, including Motiv, which pays him a monthly stipend.
Clement isn’t the only one smitten with electric trucks. One of Tesla’s co-founders is working on electric trucks. Lion, a Canadian company, says it’ll have an electric school bus on the market this fall. It claims to have a range of 75 miles. While there are sparks of potential for electric trucks and buses, don’t count on the seeing them on a regular basis anytime soon.