Big Wheels: A Clean Revolution for Trucks and Buses

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | May 20, 2016

Not much has changed on the big stuff—long-haul trucks, school and transit buses—since the 1940s. There have been some aerodynamic and other efficiencies, but they still mostly use diesel engines with big polluting tailpipes, and innovations are sparse—a lot of today’s bright yellow school buses don’t even have seatbelts.
 Yes, it looks like your average yellow school bus, but this one gets to use the exclusive electric vehicle parking. (Adomani photo)But things are looking up. Now we’re talking about long-haul trucks with fuel- and emissions-saving hybrid drivetrains; plug-in school buses (with belts!); and self-driving 18-wheelers that are either fully autonomous  or aerodynamically “draft” behind a leader.
 
First the school buses. Jim Reynolds is president of Adomani Inc., which has had an electric bus carrying kids on routes in Central California’s Gilroy Unified School District for two years.
 Diesel buses don't just aggravate local pollution--they directly affect the health of the kids who ride in them. (Adomani photo)Reynolds said the company is scaling up to build buses on a Ford or Chevy chassis in two sizes: a nine to 30-passenger bus with 125-mile range, and a 40- to 70-passenger model with 150-mile range. The latter, he said, should calm the fears of school districts where buses make several long loops per day.
 
These buses aren’t cheap, $200,000 or more, compared to an $80,000 to $100,000 diesel. But there are significant incentives to plug the gap. School districts in California, for instance, will be able to get 100 percent of the bus paid for through state funds, which will also cover the cost of charging stations. The subsidies cover up to 50 buses a year through 2023.
 
The state’s urgency in getting diesels off the road is not hard to understand: A Natural Resources Defense Council/Council for Clean Air study concluded that a kid riding in a diesel school bus would be subject to as much as four times the level of carcinogenic diesel exhaust as someone riding in a car in front of the bus. And, it goes without saying, the young passengers have elevated risk of developing ashtma and other respiratory diseases.
 
A sticking point remains the big bus fleets that contract with school districts. “They buy in large volumes, 300 to 400 buses at a time, and tend to buy the cheapest diesel vehicles they can find,” Reynolds said. “It’s difficult to get them excited about electric, though they all say they like it.” But in some cases they don’t have a choice—the South Coast Air Quality District in California, for instance, requires districts with 15 or more buses to use alternative fuels—electric, natural gas or liquefied natural gas (LNG).
Otto is looking to automate the big rigs. The driver can grab shut eye in the sleeper as the truck rolls through the night. No more idling at the truck stop! (Otto photo) And the big rigs are going through huge changes, too. A new San Francisco company called Otto, staffed by 15 former Google engineers, is aiming to retrofit 18-wheelers with self-driving technology. How’s this sound? Sleeper trucks, instead of idling at a truck stop all night, could keep rolling while the driver snores.
 
Otto has outfitted three Volvo trucks with cameras, radar and Lidar sensors. And it all works. Company executives told the New York Times they plan to demonstrate commercial viability soon.  
 Volvo's three-truck platoon in Europe. (Volvo photo)Speaking of Volvo, three of its big trucks moved across Europe in formation last March, from Gothenburg to Rotterdam, using a proven technique called platooning. When a truck closely follows behind another one (using self-driving electronics) it saves a lot of fuel through improved aerodynamics.
 
“We believe that platooning offers major advantages, mainly for our customers, but also for society in the form of fuel savings, reduced emissions and enhanced transportation efficiency,” said Anders Kellström, Volvo project manager in the EU Truck Platooning Challenge. Volvo also has I-See technology on new trucks that lets drivers map out and prepare for hills along the regular routes.
 
Joshua Switkes, CEO of a platooning company called Peloton, said May 19 during the Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE) conference in Washington that it is “very close” to commercializing its technology with customers including FedEx. He added that platooning can save 10 percent on trucking fuel costs, but it doesn’t easily fit into federal regulations that give credit for greenhouse gas reductions. 
 Peloton says it's close to commercializing platooning. Goodbye truck stops. (Peloton photo)And then there’s the Nikola Motor Company. “Nikola” was Tesla’s first name, but this company isn’t a clone of Elon Musk’s brainchild. One of its two products is the Nikola One, a hybrid semi with 2,000 horsepower/3,700 foot pounds of torque developed with a turbine that charges a 320-kilowatt-hour battery pack connected to six electric motors.
 
Turbines are fuel agnostic, so they could run happily on a variety of fuels, but this one will probably run on natural gas most of the time.
 Nikola One: a Volt-like hybrid with 1,200 miles of range and 2,000 horsepower. (Nikola photo)One of the best things about Nikola One is its range—1,200 miles. Pure electric semis are a non-starter because even with a huge battery pack they’d be very range limited, and would then need a layover for hours of charging.
 
Cleaner LNG was catching on as an alternative fuel for semis, but conversions are slowing down. These days there isn’t the big price difference in natural gas and diesel as fuels. Nikola, though, claims its hybrid trucks have half the operating cost of traditional big rigs.
 
Like electric school buses, Nikola Ones won’t be cheap, around $350,000 all-in, but the company says it will offer incentives—100,000 gallons of natural gas at no cost for the first 5,000 reservations. And Nikola is also planning to address another hurdle with a national network of 50 refueling stations. There are only 913 public natural gas stations in the U.S. now, and the fuel is hard to find in some places. 50 stations is certainly not enough to switch the whole car fleet over to natural gas--we have 160,000 gasoline stations--but it can create pockets of deployment for the technology.
 The Nikola Zero: No it's not a Tesla, it's a 520-horsepower off-roader with solar panels. (Nikola photo)And Nikola’s second vehicle, the Nikola Zero? It’s a weird-looking off-road type thing, but with, um, Tesla-like specifications. Does your average UTV have 520 horsepower on tap, and make the zero to 60 dash in three seconds? A range of up to 150 miles from a 50-kilowatt-hour battery pack is claimed.
 
There’s more: Proterra, a favorite of mine, is making inroads into the electric transit bus market, via innovations such as overhead dock charging. Proterra now has placed more than 150 buses with college and municipal transit agencies in North America.

Here's the Adomani electric school bus on video:

And here's the Nikola One hybrid truck up front and personal:
 

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