Driver acceptance vital when adopting alternative powertrains

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Updated Mar 7, 2024
Fleet panel discussion at the Green Truck Summit
Motorweek's John Davis (left), moderates the fleet panel discussion at the 2024 Green Truck Summit with Matthew Betz of DTE Energy; Al Curtis of Cobb County, Ga., and Eric McCann of Bimbo Bakeries.

When discussing the adoption of alternative powertrain and propulsion technologies, a lot of time is rightly spent on infrastructure. With electric vehicles in particular, fleets don’t want a truck that can’t be charged, regardless of the how many purchase incentives are available, or how perfect an application may be.

But adoption of new technology should never be focused on infrastructure alone. New technologies also impact people and, sometimes, people don’t want to change.

During a panel discussion Tuesday at the Green Truck Summit during Work Truck Week in Indianapolis, three fleet representatives shared their early experiences in adopting alternative fuels and propulsion technologies into their operations, and how training people in many cases has been as hard or harder than assimilating the new equipment.

“When we did it, we knew we really had to the change the culture and mindset of our people,” said Al Curtis, fleet services director in Cobb County, Ga.

Curtis said Cobb County started its alternative power journey with biodiesels in 2010. He said even then, the transition was met with internal resistance. Operators questioned the change, saying the fuel wouldn’t perform as well as conventional diesel and didn’t want it in their vehicles. But Curtis said Cobb County had worked with its suppliers to determine the duty cycles where the fuel made sense, so it moved forward first, and educated its operators later.

“We integrated biodiesel for six to eight months and didn’t tell anyone,” Curtis said. “Then one day we brought all the operators in and told them we were using it. They were all saying, ‘It won’t work, it will gel up.’ We were able to say ‘We’ve been saving money and running it for a year. You’ve been doing it.’”

[RELATED: Biodiesel: Is it a better option for trucking than EVs?]

Curtis said driver adoption came quickly after that.

“Sometimes you have to step out there and change mindsets in a reverse order,” he said.

Eric McCann remembers similar resistance when his Bimbo Bakeries fleet first added propane vehicles last decade.

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“We had people watching the James Bond movies and they were freaking out,” said McCann, Bimbo’s director of fleet sustainability and technology. “We had to show them they were safe. Once they drove them, they understood.”

Battery electric vehicles have similar adoption challenges, the fleet leaders said. Curtis said one of Cobb County’s first employee-focused actions once it decided to purchase EVs was getting buy-in from its technician workforce. Curtis said his team knew that was important because even if an operator enjoyed driving an EV, if a technician questioned the technology and bad mouthed it, the driver’s perception may change.

“We took our biggest tech — 6’4” 275 lb., guy — our biggest voice in the shop. He was a skeptic. We got him in the Nissan Leaf and let him drive it and he enjoyed it. He became our biggest proponent,” Curtis said.

McCann added to that.

“When we launched our first EV in 2019, we said ‘We have to be ready to fail,’” he said. “We knew as soon as one failed, we’d hear ‘I told you so.’”

But McCann also knew the technology made sense. Bimbo’s medium-duty trucks haul light loads. Transitioning that equipment from gas and diesel trucks to EVs would create a better driving experience for operators.

“When they realized their backs felt better, they didn’t hurt as much at the end of the day,” operators were more accepting of the technology, he said.

[RELATED: Step by step instructions to installing charging infrastructure]

One other adoption point that shouldn’t be overlooked is charging service. A heavy-duty truck charger isn’t always plug and play. Chargers must be commissioned after being installed and they require regular maintenance (just like the trucks they power) to continue performing at peak levels.

DTE Energy’s Matthew Betz, Tuesday’s third panelist, spoke of the importance of finding a charging provider who has not only the product but also the customer service capabilities to keep a fleet’s charging equipment operating correctly.

“There’s a hundred companies out there trying to sell chargers and services and the service level between those companies differs greatly,” he said. “When you find a company with a good charger and good service, hire them.”

Hydrogen Fuel Cell & BEV Survey
The following survey was sent as a link in an email cover message in February 2023 to the newsletter lists for Overdrive and CCJ. After approximately two weeks, a total of 176 owner-operators under their own authority, 113 owner-operators leased or assigned to a carrier and 82 fleet executives and 36 fleet employees from fleets with 10 or more power units had completed and submitted the questionnaire for a total of 407 qualified responses. Cross-tabulations based on respondent type are provided for each question when applicable.
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