Commercial Vehicle & Transportation



This article, in no way, should be considered an endorsement of Cummins and/or its EV/alt-fuel products. It is simply a report on observations and education as a result of Cummins’ willingness to share information with ACT’s staff.


Numerous articles have been written about the anticipated transition to electric trucks. There are all sorts of numerical models, projections, and opinions in favor of and against adoption. One wonders how many of those commentators have actually driven a battery powered commercial vehicle. With this question in mind, ACT undertook an initiative to get some first-hand observations by finding an operator of one or more electric trucks. The plan was not designed to be a data-driven road test, nor a comparison of one vehicle manufacturer with another, but rather to gather some first-hand observations with which readers could verify or refine their opinions.

ACT Research remains fuel agnostic, reporting and analyzing a variety of alternative power solutions. It is ACT’s contention that fleets know their specific operations better than anyone else and should use that information to make their own decision. Additionally, it is worth noting that, like any other alternative to traditional technologies, EVs are typically being compared to the known baseline of diesel powered internal combustion engines.

We started by contacting Greater Indiana Clean Cities for assistance in locating a fleet we could contact for an in-depth interview. GICC is a resource we have previously used. They connected us with Cummins Inc, who answered questions and invited us to visit their test track to drive electric vehicles.

The day of the visit was overcast, cold, and blustery, with rain threatening. Nevertheless, it was a great opportunity. What follows are our observations, conclusions, and answers to our questions. We have also included some analogies that we considered as we think about how the possible transition to electric commercial vehicles might actually take place.

We talked with product and service engineers within the Cummins New Power business unit These engineers were tasked with matching commercial electric vehicle performance with customer needs and wants. They have been working on the development of battery electric power systems. They were not working on cab design, suspensions, brakes, etc. Their concentration, again, was on the power system.

At the test track facility, the engineers could replicate many different situations that vehicles would encounter in real-world operations. Besides real-world testing at the track, Cummins can simulate practically any road in North America. Test track work is intended to confirm that the truck will perform as predicted in the dynamometer lab tests. As an example, electric truck performance on hills can be evaluated to determine how it compares to a gas- or diesel-powered counterpart.

Electric Bus

Upon arrival at the track, we were escorted to an electric bus for a briefing. The bus heater was powered by the same batteries that power the vehicle. Novices to the EV world might perceive that you could not heat a school bus with battery power. That perception is wrong. The bus was warm to the point that one could remove a coat and feel comfortable. Additionally, the electric bus was quiet and did not vibrate or smell (emissions). And while these “missing” items were important to us, we can only imagine how critical it would be for a full-time driver of any commercial vehicle to do a day’s work and be able to return home with hearing, muscles, lungs, and clothing in pretty much the same condition as when they left the house to start their day.


Electric Box Truck

The next EV we encountered was a box truck. The only outward signs that the truck was electric were the decals and the battery packs on the bottom. Otherwise, it looked just like a diesel-powered truck. As an ACT associate slid into the driver’s seat and started the truck, those of us on the outside were surprised to hear a distinct “hum” coming from the vehicle. The sound we heard was the vehicle’s electric system. Electric motors run the air compressor for the vehicle’s air brakes, circulate fluids, and operate the cab air conditioning system and any other necessary functions that a truck would need.

The box truck was a production vehicle with a true EV dash, whose main feature was to tell the driver the state of the battery charge and remaining range. When evaluating a vehicle’s mileage range, a number of factors must be considered, including the load, speed, degree of regeneration, topography, external temperature, and even the electrical accessory load. EV batteries undergo testing before use and have a +/- energy efficiency rating just like ICE units. Regardless, the driver gets plenty of indication of remaining battery energy/distance and when recharging is required.

This is important for electric vehicles because the battery can be damaged by excessive discharge. According to engineers, the optimal charge level usually ranges from 20% to 80%. However, the truck manufacturer will determine exactly how the dash will indicate the remaining charge and miles to power exhaustion.

Starting the box truck was simple; turn a key on the steering column and a green light on the dash illuminated, signaling the truck was on. The acceleration of the box truck was very brisk, and the “hum” was not audible in the cab. A regular driver of this vehicle would most likely be completely satisfied by the performance. As with the yard spotter, cab heat in the box truck powertrain comes from the energy in the battery. The box truck also has a regeneration system, At first, the regenerative effect was foreign and took some getting used to. The feature would probably come in handy for delivery in congested big city traffic. Analogous to the use of an engine brake in a diesel truck, the regen feature is designed to optimize brake life and maximize battery charging. While electric drivetrains can be designed to produce instant torque, this is not necessarily the case for all electric vehicles. Rather, the amount of power (torque) that is applied by the electric motor at launch can be controlled. In fact, emulating gas or diesel engine torque can result in the driver’s perception that the new electric truck has exactly the same performance. As an added benefit of controlling the torque, excessive tire wear is eliminated. When asked about customers’ feedback on battery-powered truck demonstrations, the Cummins employees responded that reactions were overwhelmingly favorable.

Electric Yard Spotter

For our next experience, we hopped aboard a yard spotter, a vehicle that moves trailers around a trucking terminal. Terminal tractors or yard spotters can be found in distribution centers and ports, as well. Few are ever licensed for use on the road, and they spend their days moving trailers around freight yards. For those not familiar with a terminal tractor, there is a big sliding door in the back of the cab where the operator can step out to hook up/disconnect air and electric connections of trailers being moved or spotted.

During this ride, we sat in the jump seat and questioned the Cummins engineer as he drove the vehicle. The dashboard contained the remnants of the diesel instrument panel, which the tech was using to make sure the air brakes had sufficient air pressure. Next to the old panel was a new electronic panel about the size of a large iPad. It displayed readings from the sensors on the battery and power systems. The engineer proudly explained that the warm and cozy cabin was heated solely from high voltage powered e-heaters and not the coolant system.


Contrary to what one might think, these electric trucks had a “cooling” or conditioning system. If one were to take a cursory glance with the trucks hood open, one could easily mistake a coolant reservoir container filled with antifreeze for a coolant recovery bottle on a traditional gas or diesel powered truck. The coolant reservoir bottle is part of an overall system to maintain a desired temperature for the battery and related hardware. If a driver needs heat in the cab, the power source is energy in the battery itself, and not from any cooling system. Remember the “hum” mentioned when standing next to an electric truck that is in operation? The hum is from the pumps circulating coolant around/through the battery and related hardware, as well as for the air compressor to maintain air pressure for the truck air brakes. The key point is that electric trucks have a cooling system to maintain the battery and related components at a near- optimum temperature. Cab heat, if used, does not come from the cooling fluid, so as not to have the battery temperature maintain system run at too low a temperature. Battery electric vehicles can operate at the same environmental ambient temperatures as today’s diesel engine products. Even though it was a winter day, the battery has a thermal management system that keeps operation at its best efficiency and effectiveness. Without the thermal management system, the battery would experience reduced performance and a shortened useful life.

During the short ride on the test track, we noted acceleration was brisk and cab noise essentially non-existent. There was no sense of excessive speed. When the engineer demonstrated the regeneration feature, it was obvious that it engaged. The sensation was as if the vehicle brakes were partially applied. At first, this seemed like a drawback to the system, but after the engineer explained a few things, it all made sense. The vehicle was designed this way to emulate the duty cycle of a yard spotter, which includes quick movement of a trailer from one spot to another —- accelerate, brake, and back into another spot and/or leave the trailer in another location.

Driver pre-trip inspections are critical to the safe operation of the commercial vehicle, regardless of their power source. Clearly, the specific items to be checked will differ for EVs, but are no more onerous. Fleets will need to ensure that the power system is operating within the specified tolerance range and has sufficient fluid with no leaks before it departs. Similarly, as with an ICE, the driver needs to be observant of warning signals  and take appropriate action.

A final comment about N/V/H (engineering abbreviations for Noise, Vibration, and Harshness), things that a driver can hear, feel, and sense. In some ICE trucks, the driver or perhaps the maintenance department can set a diesel engine’s idle speed within limits. This adjustment is a way to stop the mirrors from shaking at idle. No such adjustment feature is required on the battery-powered trucks we drove. The mirrors were rock solid and the noise in the cab was nonexistent. When given a choice of ICE or EV in actual-use tests, drivers would take the electric vehicle, citing their quiet, smooth, and vibrationless operation.


What did we learn and what conclusions did we draw during our short time at the test track?

First, while the industry doesn’t have the nearly 90 years’ experience running battery-powered trucks as it does with diesel, the first box trucks were battery powered and replaced the horse and wagon. That said, the industry can probably learn something new every day as electric trucks go into service.

Second, everyone has an opinion, and sometimes the “facts” to support those opinions can get a little distorted. We were after the “facts” from the people who should know. We’re comfortable that ACT got the facts from unbiased professionals. Cummins has become a supplier of both traditional and nontraditional power sources, including diesel, gasoline, natural gas, propane, and hydrogen. Again, we attempted to provide some observations and answers to questions. So, here are some basic conclusions:

  1. Lithium EV batteries must be maintained/operated within a certain temperature range to maximize. There is a “sweet spot” for battery usage. Find it and use it.
  2. From instrumentation to performance, design, and application, engineers are doing their utmost to make the transition from ICE equipped trucks to battery-powered trucks as seamless as possible for drivers and maintenance personnel. Once Cummins’ engineers get the powertrain basics correct, those who design chassis, as well as those in production, can build on the solid This work is being done holistically, with input from and consideration of those on the front-lines, including drivers and maintenance technicians, as well as others along the freight industry and supply chain.
  3. Since 2027 diesel engine emissions standards are still being formed – the result, the cost of compliance is still a wild card. As a result, cost comparisons between ICE and battery powered electric trucks are a bit of a moving target. What is clear is that time and experience will fill in the blanks, and a lower TCO will increase the likelihood of EV adoption.

From a driver’s perspective, the electric vehicle can get the job done, just as ICE-equipped trucks do.


Again, we all are entitled to our own opinions as to whether electric trucks will come to fruition in large numbers and be cost-effective or not. But as one forms his or her opinion, stated below are some thoughts about timing.

  1. History tells us that early perceptions of cell phones were mostly negative. They were big and bulky, cell towers were few and far between, calls got dropped, phones were very expensive and the charge and battery life left a lot to be Today, smart phones are simply indispensable.
  2. When was the last time you bought film for your camera? You remember that expensive camera you bought, the one with the optional telephoto and wide-angle lenses? Ever shown a picture of a family outing on your phone to a friend or send it to them via the internet, or are you still waiting for your prints to be developed and printed?
  3. Why do most people drive cars with automatic transmissions? In the 1950s, people believed: they cost a lot more, engines need more horsepower for the automatic to equal a manual, they use more fuel than a manual, they cost more to overhaul, the vehicle will weigh significantly more, etc., etc., etc. Nowadays, drivers who know how to drive a vehicle with a manual transmission are as rare.
  4. A similar phenomenon took place in the commercial vehicle industry. Automatic (or automated manual) transmissions were OK for refuse trucks, but no red-blooded Class 7 or 8 truck driver was going to drive any automatic transmission-equipped Arguments against automatics were pretty much the same for cars, though the stakes were arguably higher: they weighed more, cost more, were not as fuel-efficient, needed more frequent overhauls, had lower resale value and just weren’t very macho. So how did the automated mechanical transmission sneak in? Thanks to the real facts, today, automated mechanical transmissions are found in somewhere around 90% of new tractors.
  5. Finally, it took more than 40 years from the introduction of the diesel-powered truck (1931) until it had more than 50% share of the new heavy-duty truck market (the 1960s). Won’t it take that long for the conversion to electric trucks to take place? The fact that there was no interstate highway system to take advantage of the weight hauling ability of the new diesel, few diesel fueling stations, few compatible driveline options, few repair facilities and the fact that they cost more than gas really had no bearing on the time for How long it will take electric to displace ICE as the majority CV power source is up for debate, but the fact that the clock is ticking is indisputable.

Change takes time. But what seems to be changing is the time it takes for change to occur. From the examples above, we might conclude that the time to change in today’s environment is compressed. We can all do a TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) analysis to get a number  when we think about change, but when you possibly add in environmental, regulatory and political considerations, the end result might not be what you first expected. Perhaps we really are “charging” into  tomorrow.

Charging Forward?

There is a growing need for quality information to support businesses as they work to address science-based targets, meet regulatory guidelines, and still turn a profit. What information do you need to charge forward with your electric commercial vehicles strategic plan?

For businesses working to understand the future of electric Classes 4-8 vehicles, ACT Research has developed a groundbreaking report that collects and analyzes propulsion systems evolution of battery and fuel cell electric, government regulations and subsidies, electric and hydrogen supply and infrastructure, as well as a total-cost-of-ownership model of 23 vehicle applications across North America through 2040.

If you’re making investments or working to develop your strategic business plan, click the button below to learn more and view samples.



In preparation for this article, ACT spent some time reviewing material available on the internet, as it pertains to electrically powered trucks and buses. They proved quite interesting in helping us prepare our questions to discuss with battery powered development engineers. You may want to review them for additional information.

Cummins Inc.:

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Purolator: LLrQbKwPujUsMd7_KchNvAGvEkiProQwl&index=3

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School bus: PLQfwssCUSc6kmOtutXPMx6LmS-ba53Ry-&index=9

Greater Indiana Clean Cities: