The Future of Fleet Energy: Diesel or Electric?

Diesel has been a mainstay of the trucking industry for decades.  This energy-dense fuel has made the diesel engine an attractive option for freight companies tasked with moving millions-of-pounds of goods annually.  However, a looming threat to its decades-long dominance is on the horizon.  Discussions of electric trucks to replace traditional diesel machines have surfaced in recent years.  However, is electric transport for freight even viable?  If so, will it completely replace diesel in the near-future?  There appears to be some contention around these types of questions.

On one side, Volkswagen representatives certainly don’t seem to believe in the complete “take-over” of battery-powered fleets.  According to a 2018 webinar produced by the ACFO (a UK representative organization for fleet decision-makers), Volkswagen officials claim that diesel will remain an indispensable part of truck fleets for years to come.

In other words, Volkswagen—the world’s largest car maker—is still investing in diesel-based projects.  Volkswagen representative Doug Hyett explains, “[there’s] a lot of fuss in the press and chat around diesel”, but “the modern diesel engine is an indispensable part of the solution as it has improved dramatically over the years in terms of efficiency and environmental performance.”

However, make no mistake.  Volkswagen is not downplaying the importance of battery-powered alternatives.  In-fact, the company has made sizable investments in battery technology and electric vehicles in the past few years, predicting that plug-in vehicles will comprise 10% of all UK Volkswagen sales by 2021.

Hyett concludes, “Fleet fuels are changing with a shift towards battery electric vehicle and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, but diesel is still a huge part of the mix.”

On the contrary, high-ranking officials at UK firm Anglian Water Services have other thoughts.  The company is completely divesting from diesel and jumping on the electric bandwagon.   According to representative Stewart Lightbody, their fleet—consisting of  2,700 vehicles, including 200 freight trucks—is looking to go 100% electric.

Anglian Water Services has, what Lightbody called, “an ambitious carbon reduction programme” with the eventual transition to 100% electric vehicles playing a central role.  Although diesel is commonly considered environmentally-friendly compared to traditional gasoline, it simply doesn’t compare to the cleanliness of electric options.

Lightbody went on to conclude that fleet managers who are interested in making the transition to battery-powered vehicles should be patient.  Such a shift in policy begins with a shift in attitude.  Likewise, if the goal is a 100% electric fleet, converting every vehicle will surely take time.  In the meantime, however, his strategy is to remain focused, “where we can introduce electric vehicles we will. We are starting where the decision is obvious and we will expand the number of electric vehicles on the fleet over time as vehicle battery range improves and manufacturer model choice increases.”

The Uncertainties Surrounding Battery-Powered Fleets

Truthfully, not everybody is as optimistic as Mr. Lighbody and his colleagues at Anglian Water Services.  According to James O’Neill at Ensto International Electric Solutions, fleet managers’ top concerns are cost implications, range anxiety, model range and availability, and whether the new data could be integrated into their already existing systems.  Additionally, driver education is a potential obstacle that fleet managers, in many cases, simply don’t want to deal with.

Vehicle infrastructure access (the availability of charging stations) is another huge concern for fleet managers that are considering battery-powered alternatives.  Unfortunately, around 70% of vehicle recharging is done at driver-homes.  It’s one thing for a passenger car to recharge their battery at a home or residence, but for larger commercial trucks making long or arduous hauls, charging stations must be available. This is where the convenience of having more than 50,000 Fuelz fueling stations nationwide like in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and in Tennessee come in.

Although the number of charging stations outside of the U.S. has increased from 3,000 to 60,000 since 2011, for the time being, there simply aren’t as many as fleet managers would like to see.  Additionally, many managers doubted the mileage capabilities of electric trucks or large commercial vehicles.  However, research into battery-technology for electric vehicles receives ample attention (and funding) from major car manufacturers, and battery capabilities are improving tremendously every year.

When it comes down to it, fleet managers simply want to make the logical vehicle choice.  Although electric options will certainly play a role in the future, until battery-powered vehicles prove their reliability and cost-effectiveness, managers will likely remain with diesel.  Nonetheless, O’Neill suggests that by 2025 a quarter of car sales would be electric (a number that might approach 40% by 2030).

Most experts’ agree with these forecasts.  However, alternatively-fueled options only account for 5% of currently registered vehicles (a number that’s imaginably lower for fleet vehicles).  Although there’s great excitement about battery-powered options, the enthusiasm hasn’t exactly translated into action just yet.