Retrofitting: From Old to New

There are always options for achieving sustainability in vehicle fleets. Converting older diesel trucks to electric drives is like dipping them into the fountain of youth, and can save operators a lot of money. Suppliers of technological updates offer specialized electric kits that can be adapted to customers’ needs in terms of range and payload.

Retrofittin. Photo: Shutterstock - petrmalinak
Climate protection program: By 2030, a third of the mileage in road haulage in Germany will be electric or based on electricity-based fuels. Photo: Shutterstock – petrmalinak.

With its climate protection program, Germany has set the bar quite high for heavy road haulage. By 2030, a third of the mileage in this segment will be electric or based on electricity-based fuels. Transport and environmental experts are now puzzling over whether truck manufacturers will succeed in establishing a sufficiently large electric fleet on the market by then. After all, Daimler Truck started production of its first electric series truck in Wörth, Rhineland-Palatinate, at the beginning of October. In Limburg an der Lahn, Germany, the first battery-electric Scania is scheduled to enter service as a city shuttle in early summer 2022. Renault Trucks, in turn, recently announced plans to offer electric trucks in every market segment starting in 2023. However, it’s likely to be a while before established manufacturers put more vehicles on the road. And yet, support for the market ramp-up of e-trucks is already in sight. The new players in decarbonization of freight transport are highly specialized companies. They convert conventional trucks of all weight classes into zero-emission vehicles using specially developed electric kits that are tailored to customers’ needs in terms of range and payload.

Combustion Engine out, Electric Drive in – Is that a possible Solution?

Of course, there’s a certain charm in an older diesel truck starting a second working life after being modified – the vehicle no longer ends up in the export market, it saves resources through recycling, and the purchase is significantly less expensive than a new vehicle. In municipal fleets, the so-called retrofit has been state of the art for several years. Specifically treasures like the Mercedes-Benz Vario often have a new career as collection vehicles for refuse and waste or as sweepers, after being retrofitted with an electric drive. An electric 7.5-ton truck with double cab for street cleaning? The more specialized the requirements for vehicle use, the more likely municipalities are to opt for a retrofitting company.

“Retrofitting commercial vehicles requires basic safety and quality standards,” explains Andreas Richter, an engineer at DEKRA’s Electromobility Competence Center. In February 2021, the expert took part in the “Retrofit” task force set up by the Federal Ministry of Transport as part of implementing the overall concept for climate-friendly commercial vehicles. His conclusion: “The German Road Traffic Act’s (StVZO) requirements for operating permits for individual vehicles play an important role in testing or in the assessment of retrofitted vehicles. This generally requires the expert opinion of an officially recognized expert in motor vehicle traffic.”

Retrofitting has so far been in the Hands of German Specialist Companies

Companies such as Orten, Quantron, BPW, and Paul Nutzfahrzeuge have made retrofitting electric drives their priority. One big player is Pepper Motion from Denkendorf in Upper Bavaria. The company has a subsidiary in Vienna that specializes in software development, and which has locations in Italy, Poland, and Bulgaria. A battery-electric drive system for series production should be available in spring 2022. By 2024, the company plans to install more than 1,000 electrification kits in retrofitted and new vehicles. The German government has long been taking retrofitters seriously as market players. That’s why, in its call for applications to promote climate-friendly commercial vehicles (Directive KsNI) published in August 2021, it put diesel trucks retrofitted with battery or fuel cell electric drive systems on a level with new vehicles. In this case, the grant for retrofitting amounts to 80 percent of additional investment costs.

At the moment, retrofitting lies mainly in the hands of German companies. In the UK, for example, retrofitting with electric drives has taken place primarily in the public transport niche. A study published in March 2021 by Zemo Partnership in London, shows that there are currently just under a dozen converted buses running in York and Brighton, as well as a refuse collection vehicle in the 26-ton class in Greenwich. In France, according to Paris-based consultancy Aster Fab, a legal framework for converting conventional vehicles to electric drives has only been in place since April 2020. Here, it’s primarily start-ups that are involved in retrofit projects.

Scientists Tinker with Fuel Cell Drives for Retrofitting

PEM_SeLv_Grafik_web_PEM-RWTH-Aachen-University
RWTH Aachen University is currently developing a modular powertrain with a hydrogen fuel cell drive for tractor units in heavy-duty transport.. Photo: PEM – RWTH-Aachen-University

The Chair of Production Engineering for Electromobility Components (PEM) at RWTH Aachen University is currently developing a modular powertrain with a hydrogen fuel cell drive for tractor units in heavy-duty transport of up to 40 tons. The somewhat unwieldy title of the project is “SeLv – Heavy-duty trucks for zero-emission logistics in heavy-duty traffic using an electrification modular system and an economical production system”. The focus lies on older diesel trucks that will be transformed into sustainable vehicles with a technological update.

For the Aachen scientists, the drive train design is the main technological challenge. “Our solution must be adaptable to the transportation industry’s varied requirements,” says project manager Fabian Schmitt from PEM. However, the scientists aren’t trying to invent a new fuel cell system. The research project’s generous three-year duration wouldn’t be long enough. Instead, the electrification kit will be developed using components already available on the market. The first prototype with road approval should be up and running by the middle of next year.

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