Monday, December 10, 2018

The Electric Truck Transition Will Go Faster Than Electric Cars

It’s taken a century for the electric car to get a good, strong foothold in the market. Electric trucks are a harder problem to solve because a truck requires so much power compared to a car. Therefore, it will take electric trucks an even longer time to start to build market share. That’s the conventional view of the upcoming transition in trucks, from the viewpoint of the auto industry. But that is the wrong way of looking at it.

The real obstacle holding back electric vehicles is the battery. For the ideal electric vehicle, the battery should be smaller and lighter than the batteries used in vehicles today — and not just a little smaller and lighter. To overtake the internal combustion engine on its own terms, batteries should be about one third smaller and one third lighter. To compete strongly in initial selling price for cars, batteries should also be about one third less expensive.

The most important point to understand about the transition to electric vehicles is that there is nothing to stop this advance in battery technology from happening. It is a simple, well-defined problem in materials engineering, so simple and so well-defined that the answer could arrive on any given day and be out on the road in prototype form one week later. How quickly it could go into mass production is a more complicated question, and experts have varying opinions, but there is a consensus that it will happen sometime between 2019 and 2060.

Note, however, that no such breakthrough is necessary for electric cars to dominate the market. As I have written before, electric cars are so much more durable than fuel-burning cars that they can eventually dominate the roads with a market share as low as 2 percent at the point of sale. It is the same way that LED light bulbs dominate home lighting even though about half of light bulbs sold are still the low-efficiency fluorescent and incandescent types. The product that lasts longer holds its space in the world for longer. The product that lasts only a few years has an exaggerated share of product sales because it is constantly being replaced.

Already electric cars are at or approaching a 1 percent market share, so the pace of deliveries does not have to pick up much for them to take over the roads in the long run.

Something that has always separated cars from trucks is market concentration. Roughly 50 well-known brands own virtually the entire car market. That has never been the case with trucks. There are hundreds of truck manufacturers. The cost of entry is relatively low. Any automotive engineer and mechanic with a drive-in warehouse space can build their first truck. Truck building does not require an assembly line or even a factory.

One way of understanding this is to look at how long trucks last. I remember being amazed at the stories of cars that ran for 200,000 or 300,000 miles. For a pickup truck to be equally amazing, it has to pass 1,000,000 miles of driving. That is because, in a practical sense, a truck can be completely rebuilt, or as much as necessary, in the repair shop. There is no part of a truck that can’t be replaced if you want to do the work.

This also implies that, with only a moderate level of guidance from an engineer, a mechanic could remove the engine and fuel tank from a truck and replace them with a battery and electric drive. This means that electric trucks could get a foothold in the market without even having a manufacturer. For all I know, there are already well-tested published designs for converting a Chevy Van or Ford F-150 pickup to electric. If those do not yet exist, they will be coming before long.

There is nothing to stop engineers from taking existing truck components and putting them together with components created for electric cars to create an electric truck. It is probably too complex a problem for a single engineer working alone, but certainly not too complex for a small number of skilled engineers collaborating over the Internet. This means that as soon as problems are solved in electric car design, the same solutions are available for use in trucks.

So electric trucks would be inevitable even if there were no manufacturers. But there are manufacturers, such as Rivian, a tiny company profiled by CNN Business. The small scale of any electric truck manufacturing operation tells you how small the cost of entry is. That means there will be many more — so many companies competing that the market leaders in fuel-burning trucks may not be able to catch up once the market starts to shift.

Companies like Ford and General Motors are starting to shift away from fuel-burning cars because it is already evident that that market is getting away from them. They will try to make the transition in SUVs and light trucks. But they will have to move quickly. If they try to manage the transition on their own schedule, they will wake up one morning to discover that that market is gone too.