If one thing is certain when trying to predict which forklift motive power will triumph it is the uncertainty created by those with a vested interest in fighting their corners. This is hardly surprising but not particularly helpful for truck buyers having to worry about running costs and legislative compliance but of one thing we can be assured – advances in ICE and electric trucks will continue to flow through, tipping the scales first in one direction and then in another. So is there anything we can be sure of in the medium to long term?
It may be helpful to look at trends. There is undoubtedly a trend away from ICE forklifts, be they powered by diesel, LPG or CNG. There are various reasons for this, such as legislation demanding cleaner emissions and big advances in conventional batteries and their chargers, which their proponents claim now means electric trucks deliver the same performance punch as ICE forklifts in all conditions. But producers of ICE trucks are fighting back with innovations, and in some countries where emission controls are less stringent such trucks are holding onto their strong market share. China, for example, saw a 10% rise in ICE truck sales last year compared with 2015.
Where, however, emission controls are stiffening, diesel engine users are responding with cleaner engines. Over the last five years engine makers have achieved a 95% reduction in particulate matter (PM) to meet Stage IIIB standards. Now, within the next two years, engine makers will be required to undertake new powertrain developments to achieve a 40% reduction of PM and to measure PN (particulate number) for the first time.
If the engine makers could entirely eliminate PM from their exhaust, a critical task owing to its clear health issue problems, then that would tip the scales more in their favour, but it is unlikely to make a permanent difference for other reasons concerning advances in alternative motive power.
Another scale tipper not to be overlooked is that engines are becoming progressively more efficient, as well as cleaner, and further advances in efficiency could potentially offset increased unit costs. In short there is a belief in certain quarters that ICE forklifts are not going away, because they have become less costly to maintain and more environmentally clean.
One development that looked promising to move the ICE market ahead was hybrid technology, combining fossil fuels with electric power. This, however, has not proven popular in any significant way involving, as it does, two power sources and therefore higher initial truck costs and complex maintenance. Despite the continuing research in this area the outlook for hybrids does not look promising, especially as some users believe that they have not lived up to expectations.
Obviously, the operating environment will dictate to some extent the choice of motive power. Food, drink and pharma industries, in particular, would shun fossilfuelled forklifts, not just because of hygiene issues but also for health reasons. While new developments like hydrogen fuel cell technology have been adopted in large scale, round-the-clock operations and are clean at point of use, initial costs are high compared with conventional electric machines and concerns remain over site supply problems and health and safety issues over the refuelling process.
All this leaves electric-powered trucks as the current favourite to achieve hegemony owing, not least, to major advances that cut their running costs and dramatically improve performance. Even in the old flooded lead-acid battery market there have been significant technical improvements. Enersys, for example, now offer their thin plate pure lead (TPPL) batteries that allow users to charge repeatedly from any depth of discharge, up to 80%, without affecting the battery’s condition. Completely sealed, they are virtually maintenance free and give off no gas emissions. A big advantage is that the need to exchange a battery can be eliminated as the battery takes advantage of opportunity charging, and charging is more rapid. Unlike the traditional lead-acid designs, their plates are only 1 mm wide, as against 4 mm, and its conductive grid uses much purer lead, typically 99.99% pure.
Two electric contenders to displace lead-acid batteries are lithium-ion (Li) and lithium iron phosphate, offering much quicker charging times than lead-acid, but their initial cost is about three times that of lead-acid. However, users thinking of switching over to these two challengers should not fixate on initial costs, which are falling anyway, but on life cycle costs, which presents a far more attractive case for their adoption.