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Penske starts running Freightliner electric trucks in California – hoping someday they’ll make economic sense

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Roger Nielsen, president and CEO of Daimler Trucks North America, at the lectern in Carson.
(Daimler Trucks North America)

Truck maker Freightliner and truck leasing, renting and logistics company Penske on Thursday planted a $16-million government seed into what they hope will become a fast-growing business in electric delivery trucks.

At a Penske center in Carson, a Freightliner eM2 medium-duty all electric truck was handed over to “Santa Claus,” who set off to deliver native plant seedlings to communities burned out by this year’s monster wildfires.

The event marked the beginning of a program funded in large part through a $16-million grant from California’s South Coast Air Quality Management District, the air pollution control agency for Orange County and major portions of Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties. Over the next year, nine more medium-duty trucks will be added to the California-based program, plus 10 heavy-duty eCascadia all-electric Freightliner big rig trucks.

“This is not a demo, this is really a long-term test,” said Brian Hard, president and CEO of Penske Truck Leasing. The medium-duty trucks, generally used for local delivery to retail outlets and the like, will be carrying goods that include building materials, automotive parts, bottled beverages and snack foods, said Hard. “They’re going to be running these hard.”

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The emissions spewed by traditional trucks’ internal combustion engines – typically, diesel – are a significant contributor to global warming and other forms of air pollution. Diesel consumption, most of it through truck engines, totaled 24% of all U.S. transportation carbon dioxide emissions and 9% of U.S. total energy emissions in 2017, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

But the cost of batteries is still so high that no one yet has made a believable argument that electric trucks make economic sense for freight haulers without subsidies.

“The business case has to be there,” said Roger Nielsen, president and CEO of Daimler Trucks North America, Freightliner’s parent company. “No one is going to be willing to shoulder the cost of the vehicles as they stand today. We’re working diligently with battery suppliers around the world to lower costs.”

In a press release, Nielsen cited “regulatory pressures” as a key business motivator for his company. Indeed, governments in Europe, China, California and elsewhere around the world are tightening emissions regulations to curtail pollution and slow the rise of global warming.

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The trucks will be owned by Freightliner and run by Penske through its own logistics service — not leased or rented to customers. High-power chargers will be installed at Penske locations in Ontario, Anaheim, La Mirada, Chino, San Diego and Santa Clara.

Other established trucking companies and a slew of start-ups are addressing the commercial electric truck market as well.

Nikola, an Arizona-based start-up, plans to introduce a new semi truck early in 2019 that runs on hydrogen-based electric fuel cells. Last year, Tesla announced it would begin producing an electric semi truck in 2019. But in recent months, Tesla CEO Elon Musk has barely mentioned the Tesla Semi, for which no factory has been built or announced.

russ.mitchell@latimes.com

Twitter: @russ1mitchell


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