Beyond Cars: Electrifying Pickups and Buses

This is the eleventh blog in a series about our Midwest electric vehicle adventure.

It looks like America’s favorite vehicle is going electric! While it’s reasonable to guess that America’s favorite vehicle may be a Toyota Camry or Honda Accord, it turns out it’s actually a pickup truck that can tow up to 13,200 pounds. For the last 42 consecutive years, the single highest-selling vehicle in the U.S. has been the Ford F-150. Clearly, Ford already has a winner here, which is why it raised more than a few eyebrows when it announced in 2017 that they would be launching an all-electric version of the F-150.

If it ain’t broke, why fix it? Well, Ford seems to think it can make their best-seller even better by making it fully battery electric. And based on this video of the electric Ford F-150 pulling a million-pound train, they might just have been right. 

The good news is that there are incredible solutions like this being developed to tackle emissions from all types of vehicle technologies, including harder-to-clean ones, and we had the pleasure of learning about and seeing many of them first-hand on our EV road trip through the Midwest. This two-part blog will survey recent progress and remaining obstacles for electrification, starting with a look at two vehicle categories that are are commonly used for passenger transport: pickups and buses. 

The transportation sector has recently become the largest single source of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the country, contributing 29 percent of total U.S. CO2 emissions. In the power sector, the U.S. has slowly been chipping away at dangerous carbon emissions using a portfolio of tools including energy efficiency and renewable energy, like solar and wind. In the transportation sector, advancements in battery technology have begun to reduce carbon emissions by enabling the production of electric vehicles (EVs) at a variety of price points, such as the Nissan Leaf, Chevy Bolt, and Tesla Model 3. These electric passenger cars reduce CO2 emissions through their superior efficiencies and by getting their power from the continuously-greening electricity grid. 

U.S. transportation sector emissions by vehicle type

U.S. EPA, June 2019

However, passenger cars only constitute 41 percent of emissions from the transportation sector, and the other 18 percent of light-duty vehicle emissions comes from pickups and SUVs. We must electrify and clean up other common modes of transportation beyond cars, such as buses, pickup trucks, medium- and heavy-duty vehicles, and aircrafts in order to effectively mitigate the worst impacts of climate change. Each of these forms of transportation poses unique challenges, as well as opportunities, that must be individually addressed.

Electric pickups for the great outdoors

To complement their plans to develop an all-electric Mustang in addition to the electric F-150, Ford also recently invested $500 million in Rivian, an EV startup headquartered in Plymouth, Michigan that specializes in designing and manufacturing EV models bigger and more outdoorsy than the Chevy Bolt we drove on our road trip. (Rivian also received an additional $700 million from Amazon.) Ford’s investment is meant to support the development of Rivian’s all-electric “skateboard,” or chassis, which Ford can build its own vehicles on. 

Rivian's electric pickup truck

Richard Truesdell [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

Rivian is gearing up to launch two EV models of their own in 2020: their electric pickup and SUV are expected to have ranges starting at 300 and 240 miles, respectively. (For comparison, our Bolt had approximately a 220 mile range.) With their new EV models, Ford and Rivian are breaking stereotypes about who drives electric vehicles and have an opportunity to reach consumers who would not leave behind their pickups for just any other EV. These automakers have tailored their marketing accordingly, by targeting a more adventure-loving, off-roading population. 

Never one to be left out, Tesla has also teased plans to develop an electric pickup truck, in addition to their SUV (the Model X) and upcoming crossover (the Model Y). 

All of these upcoming electric pickups and SUVs will bring more drivers into the EV community and will help to clean up carbon emissions from the light-duty truck segment, which currently constitutes 17.5 percent of all transportation emissions in the U.S. 

Buses are low hanging fruit

At the end of 2017, China captured headlines when they announced that Shenzhen had fully electrified their bus fleet. Shenzhen’s 16,359 electric buses are more than New York City, New Jersey, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Toronto have combined. 

Bus electrification has captivated the attention of environmentalists, technologists, and public health advocates alike. From school buses to city buses, the electrification of these vehicles can improve the health of some of our most vulnerable populations. The diesel buses most common in the U.S. today are substantial sources of nitrogen oxides and fine particulate matter, both of which have been shown to harm people with asthma and other chronic health conditions. Tailpipe emissions from gas-burning vehicles contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone, or smog, and an increase of just three parts per billion of ground-level ozone has a similar effect as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for 29 years.

Proterra's electric, corporate bus shuttle in Chicago

Thankfully, several cities and states from Indianapolis to California have decided to protect children in particular by replacing diesel school buses with electric buses instead. Policymakers have recently turned their attention to buses in school fleets and beyond. Buses are the low hanging fruit of electrification because they travel fixed distances along defined routes and are utilized more heavily than passenger vehicles, allowing cities and school districts to save even more money over the lifetime of the electric bus compared to a diesel one. School buses, in particular, are even riper for the picking since they have extended, scheduled downtime in the middle of the day which is convenient for charging and has the potential to provide grid benefits. California recently approved a utility proposal to build out charging infrastructure for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles and to launch a pilot to explore the benefits of integrating electric school buses to the grid. 

Despite these advantages, the adoption of electric buses in the U.S. has been slow, and sometimes even tumultuous. In at least two cases in Albuquerque and Indianapolis, electric buses saw their ranges decrease due to either intensely cold temperatures or hilly terrain.

As electric buses are becoming more common on city streets,bus manufacturers are finding solutions to unexpected problems like those experienced in Indianapolis and Albuquerque. California-based Proterra, for example, has developed new powertrain designs that are better equipped to handle steep inclines. Others, like BYD, have agreed to provide municipalities with wireless charging infrastructure to supplement their batteries’ range.

The future for electric buses--and as a consequence our air quality--is looking better and better. Proterra is expected to pull in an impressive $200 million in revenue this year, large cities like Chicago have committed to partially electrifying their bus fleets, and momentum continues to build for other municipalities to follow suit.

The future is electric

Electric pickups and buses have key roles to play in cleaning up the transportation sector, and several companies are poised to compete for this emerging market. It is important that policymakers recognize both the progress that is being made in developing new, electric vehicle technologies as well as the challenges that remain. By overseeing the strategic development of grid and charging infrastructure, and by setting informed incentives and standards, transportation electrification can be accelerated while reducing emissions, reducing costs, and cleaning the air for everyone. 

We went on a Midwest electric vehicle road trip to talk about transportation policy, highlight the already booming benefits of electric vehicles to local economies, and shatter stereotypes about what it means to be an electric vehicle driver. We’re blogging about our findings, including tips for other aspiring roadtrippers and policy suggestions for further progress.

Other blogs related to our electric adventure include:

Driving (on) Clean Energy: Touring the Midwest in an EV
State of the States: EVs and EV Policy in the Midwest
Road Trip Report: How Ohioans Buy EVs (It Should Be Easier)
Avoiding Range Anxiety with an EV Road Trip Checklist
Road Trip Report: Midwest Cities Move Multimodal
Midwest Electric Vehicles in 5 Maps
Electric Vehicle Charging 101
Road Trip Report: On Charging Champions and Public Policy
Electric Vehicles 101
This Is What the EV Revolution Looks Like

About the Authors

Madhur Boloor

Schneider Fellow, Analysis Team, Climate & Clean Energy Program

Patricia Valderrama

Schneider Sustainable Energy Fellow, Climate & Clean Energy program

Ada Statler

Schneider Fellow, Eastern Region, Climate & Clean Energy program

Samuel Garcia

Schneider Fellow, Midwest Region, Climate & Clean Energy program

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