Funding, Mandates Fuel Commercial-Vehicle Electrification

Legislators provide the impetus to electrify trucks and buses, leading to several engineering challenges.

Many fleets will rely primarily on company-owned chargers located in their vehicle depots rather than on public chargers. (Lightning eMotors)

Government funding and electrification mandates are providing strong tailwinds for electric vehicle (EV) suppliers. But to optimize their transitions, fleet operators will have to analyze many factors ranging from charging infrastructure to financing while also determining whether to buy new vehicles or convert internal-combustion platforms to electric drivetrains.

Lightning Energy’s Brandon McNeil discusses telematics as Brodie Ayers of Xcel Energy (left) and Mac Burns of Lightning eMotors (right) look on. (Lightning eMotors)

Strategies for leveraging government funding and creating efficient long-term operating plans were examined by a range of industry experts at the recent Lightning Day event hosted by Lightning eMotors and attended by customers, investors and select media including SAE Media. Several government actions made panelists bullish about market prospects.

“There’s a perfect storm right now, with federal and state mandates saying ‘thou will electrify’ and governments are providing funding to help companies electrify,” said Nick Bettis, Lightning’s marketing director. “The legislation’s the stick, and the government funding is the carrot.”

Investing in infrastructure

While fully electric passenger cars remain a tiny fraction of the U.S. market, government funding for heavier vehicles should drive solid growth. The $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill passed last year provides dramatic increases over previous support for EVs and charging stations.

“When we started [in 2004], we had around $22 million in public funding,” said Jarrett Stoltzfus, public policy director at Proterra, a battery systems maker. “The infrastructure funding is now $1 billion a year for the next five years. School bus funding is also over $1 billion per year, and there’s $7.5 billion going to all the states for charging infrastructure.”

Government mandates and funding are a “perfect storm” for electrification, said Lightning eMotors’ Nick Bettis. (Lightning eMotors)
Lightning CEO Tim Reeser pointed out the value of funding for repowered vehicles. (Lightning eMotors)

School buses are currently a high priority at Lightning, panel moderator Bettis noted. Their usage pattern allows for lengthy periods of recharging. “A school bus is the low-hanging fruit,” Bettis said. “It goes out in the morning, can charge during the day and then go out again in the afternoon.”

Augmenting federal funding, many states are also providing financial support. In Colorado, Lightning’s home state, legislators tasked utility providers with helping companies develop strategies to maximize their charging infrastructure. That’s important because many fleets will rely primarily on company-owned chargers located in their vehicle depots rather than on public chargers.

“The state of Colorado requires investor-owned utilities to create an EV plan; they approved $108 million to fund it,” said Brodie Ayers, EV fleet portfolio manager at Xcel Energy. “We will look at your fleet and operating needs, then help you build out your infrastructure at low or no cost.”

Panelist Gary Van Orden, vice president at Mike Albert Fleet Solutions, also stressed the importance of doing extensive analysis of a fleet’s charging requirements. “Many decisions are primarily in infrastructure,” Van Orden said. “The first thing we do is set the infrastructure for charging. There are a lot of things that must be considered, such as routes and terrain.”

Repowering IC vehicles

Another significant change driving markets is that federal funding now supports electrification of existing internal-combustion vehicles, making it easier for fleet owners to convert older vehicles to electric powertrains. Lightning CEO Tim Reeser noted that the federal government will now pay 80% of the cost of powertrain replacement, allowing companies to repower existing vehicles instead of buying them new.

That’s important given the current state of the transportation supply chain. New vehicles are hard to come by, making it more attractive to leverage government support by converting a portion of a fleet’s vehicles to electric powertrains. Repowering also lets fleet owners utilize existing specialized custom vehicles.

Panelists also noted that software will play a central role in the level of success for companies that shift to electric powertrains. Monitoring vehicles’ many aspects of usage is vital. “Software is always the key to fleet management – when you electrify, it’s even more important,” said Brandon McNeil, VP of the Lightning Energy division. “One company saw a 95% savings by analyzing usage and using managed charging instead of unmanaged charging.”

Software also monitors driving time and all vehicle operations. Driving styles play a major role in battery usage, so many drivers will benefit from programs that address ways to minimize battery usage. Software also can help monitor many other aspects of battery usage, including factors such as heating, cooling and other parameters that impact battery drain and long-term lifetimes.

“When you move to EVs, there are a host of EV specific data points,” McNeil added. “We’ve developed an on-board telematic system that sends a couple hundred data points a second, so you can see with granular depth what’s happening on the vehicle and the health of the system.”