Shuttle trucks and trailers to warehouse gates is noisy work, with the roar of heavy diesel engines in the background punctuating the occasional slamming of container doors, loading docks and forklifts.
But if recent trends in auto manufacturing continue, dock and shipyard operations could soon start to quiet down a bit. Continued advances in clean energy technology are opening a new frontier in the quest for operational optimization as companies begin to replace their diesel-powered industrial trucks with electric vehicle (EV) equivalents.
The conversion to electric drive for trucks of all kinds is still in its infancy, so only a few companies have converted their entire fleet to electricity. One reason is the cost. For example, the initial cost of a battery-powered on-road truck typically far outweighs the cost of an internal combustion engine vehicle. Although EV advocates say the premium can be offset by government rebates or recouped through fuel and maintenance savings, those benefits will take time to materialize.
Another factor limiting the widespread adoption of electric vehicles is range. For example, battery-powered Class 8 trucks today have less than a quarter of the range of a diesel version, making them ill-suited for long-haul journeys of hundreds of miles. Although manufacturers could add additional batteries to increase this range, the additional weight would reduce the vehicles’ payload capacity and reduce their usefulness.
But the restrictions that have prevented the long-haul use of electric trucks don’t necessarily apply to vehicles used exclusively for short-haul haulage — vehicles that many now see as heavily suited to dock and shipyard work.
HOME, HOME IN THE YARD
Electric units offer a number of advantages, making them a strong fit. For one, yard trucks — also known as terminal tractors, spotter trucks, or yard jockeys — often run 16 or 24 hours a day with fresh drivers at the wheel for each shift. This expanded usage pattern means fuel savings from electric vehicles quickly add up, a huge plus at a time when fossil fuel prices have been through the roof.
And because they tow trailers and containers within the confines of a dock, yard, or intermodal facility, an electric yard truck never strays far from the electrical charging infrastructure needed to charge its batteries, reducing the likelihood of running out of juice and he stranded .
Penske Truck Leasing, based in Reading, Pennsylvania, cited both of these strengths when it announced earlier this year that it was adding new electric terminal trucks to its US rental fleet for use in applications that require short-distance movements such as , Warehouses and distribution centers as well as container terminals.
Penske ordered these vehicles from Orange EV, a Kansas City, Missouri-based manufacturer of heavy-duty electric vehicles. In the right applications, Penske said, these electric vehicles could offer benefits like zero exhaust emissions, the ability to run for up to 24 hours on a single charge, and a 50% shorter braking distance than standard truckss thanks to regenerative braking systems that use the vehicle’s momentum to charge the batteries.
“Yacht vehicles are a great opportunity for electrification,” said Patrick Watt, vice president of alternative vehicles and emerging technologies at Penske Truck Leasing. “They have lower road speeds so they require less energy, they are close to charging facilities and their performance allows drivers to drive in most circumstances,” an improvement over previous EV models that lacked power to compete with diesel, he explains.
These characteristics also make battery-powered industrial trucks a good option for companies trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and their carbon footprint, says watts. In addition, these vehicles are already operational, he adds. “We are still at the beginning of the transition to electric vehicles [in over-the-road applications], so we continue to see advances in technology. In 10 years it will be a much better and more efficient vehicle,” says Watt. “But for an electric yard tractor, the technology you see today will be effective for a long, long time.”
Another reason Penske is investing in electric garden tractors, according to Watt, is that the electric design has proven popular with gardeners. “We’ve had positive feedback from drivers,” he says, noting that drivers prefer quiet battery-powered models rather than “sitting in a diesel vehicle that idles noisily, [spewing] Emissions off and vibrates more [than] an electric truck. It resembles an electric golf cart; It’s a comfortable environment to sit in while waiting for the next shift.”
But more importantly, electric industrial trucks have demonstrated high uptime, proven resilience to mechanical failure, and require only short, frequent recharges to keep their batteries energized. “People think about fully discharging the battery cell and then fully charging it again, but with only 15 to 20 minutes of charging at each opportunity, that’s a natural pause [for the driver], you never have to worry about it shutting down to zero,” says Watt. “It’s a mindset shift for people used to thinking of diesel in terms of miles per gallon or gallons per hour.”
HOLD OUT OF THE WORKSHOP
Avoiding breakdowns and delays is a key selling point for electric trucks, agrees Zack Ruderman, vice president of sales and marketing for Orange EV, which currently operates about 500 heavy-duty electric trucks in 130 fleets in 28 states, Canada and the Caribbean. (The company recently expanded its yard truck rental program to include electric spotter vehicles in 48 states.)
“The market says their biggest pain point is downtime [when trucks need repairs]'” explains Ruderman. “Renting a replacement truck at short notice is expensive in this market. It’s also expensive to keep extra trucks on-site. But you need the uptime because [yard handling is] a mission-critical operation.”
To keep downtime to a minimum, Orange says the battery-powered trucks can be charged when the driver is taking a break anyway. As Penske found, load time quickly adds up over lunch breaks and 15-minute breaks during shifts.
Additional uptime comes from avoiding long dwells in the shop, says Ruderman. Orange EV claims that battery-powered trucks break down less than diesel models. They also lack components like engine gearboxes, emission control units, and radiators that are time-consuming (and expensive) to maintain.
They are also designed for versatility. Orange EV says its base model can do 70% of all jobs that a diesel model can do, only falls short on the 10% of jobs with steep grades and the 20% that require high speeds. To fill these gaps, the manufacturer plans to launch a more powerful “Port Truck” version with increased speed and power in 2023. Yard trucks are at the forefront of electric transformation,” says Ruderman.
Rudermann may be right. Companies across the supply chain have been testing electric forklifts for the past few years, and they seem to like what they’re seeing. The result was a rapid increase in production and sales of battery-powered trucks for dock and yard management duties.
Many of these users initially chose electric models for environmental reasons, e.g. But pilot tests have given them additional reasons to continue using electric yard trucks, as they have identified additional benefits in terms of fuel savings, increased uptime and driver satisfaction.
As electric truck production reaches new levels of maturity, the sector is primed for rapid growth in the coming years. And much of that growth will likely take place in an often-overlooked corner of the logistics sector, trailer and container storage outside of your local distribution center.