Electrification with Cummins head of electrification

Photo: greenbiz.com

Cummins head of electrification, Julie Furber, discusses transportation electrification and the market for electric trucks.

Cummins, the giant engine and powertrain maker based in Columbus, Indiana, turned 100 this year. Over the last century it’s become a dominant player in delivering diesel engines and gear to its partners such as global truck and bus makers. The company says its diesel engines power seven out of 10 trucks on U.S. roads.

But lesser known is that over the past few years Cummins has begun to strategically build out a business around electric trucks and buses, building power trains, hybrid engines and even battery packs for big OEMs such as Gillig, Hyundai, United States Postal Office and Paccar. This year Cummins is focused on electric school and transit buses, and it’s eying early markets for electric delivery trucks and electric drayage vehicles (trucks that move containers from ports or railyards). 

To learn more about what Cummins is doing with its electrification division — a 300-person group with a $500 million budget over a three-year-period — I jumped on the phone with Cummins head of electrification Julie Furber earlier this year, and we chatted about the market for electric trucks (Furber also will speak on the main stage at our VERGE 19 event).

1Katie Fehrenbacher: Can you talk about the development of the electrification business at Cummins?

Julie Furber: Cummins has been involved with electrification in one way shape or form for many years. We have the powergen business. We’ve been developing engines for hybrid applications for several decades. We also created a hybrid business, really focused on China, about 10 years ago. Also, for the last, maybe, about five or six years, we’ve been working on various R&D programs around fully electric and hybrid vehicles. But it’s really over the past three years that we’ve really set it into motion as a commercial entity.

2Fehrenbacher: How do you see the market for electric trucks and commercial vehicles in 2019? Is it still at an early stage or are we reaching some kind of tipping point for mass commercialization?

Furber: I think all the signs are positive and we are moving toward adoption. I think in 2019, we’re still at the beginning. I think areas like buses and school buses are moving fairly quickly now. But I still do think in trucks that we are at the infancy of real adoption.

I think we’ve relied on two or three key indications in the marketplace. We always talk about regulation and I think Nox and greenhouse gas regulation will be a big driver of adoption. But we’re still waiting for those and 2024 and 2027 will be key dates for changes in regulation. At this point, we’re looking at what California will do and what the whole of the U.S. will do. I also think as we move forward that the total cost of ownership is a key piece of where we’re going.

I think fleets and OEMs are trying out things in trucks, rather than we see wholesale adoption. I think it [electric trucks] definitely work for smaller ranges and certainly vehicles that come back at night in order to charge.

There is also pull from end customers with trucks. We are starting to see customers who have sustainability as one of their key goals. They’re really starting to pull through the fleets.

But I think the total cost of ownership model is still not quite there yet. We still need subsidies and grants to make that case for the economic payback

3Fehrenbacher: How big is the electrification division at Cummins?

Furber: We are selling units. Predominantly into school bus right now. We’re very close to launching in transit bus. So our partner in transit is Gillig, and we’ll be making a press announcement about that.

In terms of our overall business, we are now over 300 people. We have eight locations in four countries and of those 300-plus people, over 200 of those are engineers. So we’re very focused on launching product. We’ve also quite a few announced partnerships with key OEMs in different applications. So Gillig in transit bus, Blue Bird in school bus, Kalmar in tractors — really some high-profile OEM customers. We’ve also done some trucks for the U.S. Postal Service. We’ve worked with Daimler and Paccar. We’ve worked with a lot of prolific OEMs and customers

4Fehrenbacher: Do you see the OEMs starting to be more aggressive on EVs? There’s a lot of small startups making these for certain applications.

Furber: Yeah. I think they’re looking at two signals. I think they’re looking for signals from their customers. So they want to know that there are customers out there that want the electric trucks and are willing pay for electric trucks. Then I also think they’re looking at regulatory framework to see where that goes. Reductions in greenhouse gas certainly in Europe and China are very much seen as a driver toward electrification. There’s a bit of “what’s the right technology to meet regulations,” but also how does the economic payback work for the end customer.

In the absence of either of those, it really then just comes down to the people who are willing to pay the premium to be zero emissions or to support climate change. Therefore, that’s more difficult in the absence of economic payback

5Fehrenbacher: Cummins has such a long history in the development of the diesel engine. What are the challenges and opportunities with that history for electric vehicles? 

Furber: The good news is that diesel has been the preferred answer to every application in the industrial and commercial world. But Cummins is very aware that that is now changing.

Really, it won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution going forward but a multitude of solutions will meet the needs of the customers. So I think we feel very well placed. Our understanding of the applications, markets, environments, how operators and drivers use the equipment and vehicles, really puts us in a really good position. For 100 years all we’ve invested in is powertrain. That’s all we do, we power people’s equipment and vehicles. So we feel like this is a solution for us rather than a complete pivot for our company. 

It’s an evolution of what we’ve done for 100 years. We went from manual and mechanical to electronic engines, to the whole last 20 years of emissions changes, and we’ve been at the forefront of innovating. This is a continuation of that.

What we’ve been able to do is leverage capability from our company and put that into electrified power businesses. Things like control and integration systems, thermal management, are all skills and capabilities we have in our internal organization. We’ve been able to supplement that with areas where we didn’t have a good experience in. So we acquired two battery companies to get our foundational capability in batteries. We’ve been doing a lot of work around power electronics and other areas of the powertrain. So we are well set up to offer high quality, robust solutions for the market place, but also able to leverage Cummins footprint in manufacturing and service and support, and to really make us capable of serving our customers at a global scale.

6Fehrenbacher: What are your big goals for the year in the electrification division?

Furber: One of the big things this year is the launch of the transit bus product. We’ll be making an announcement next week with Gillig around that launch. We’ll be completing that program, getting validation of that production and it will be part of this year’s work.

Our approach is to really find those markets that are moving most quickly and then develop product for those markets that is more foundational and can be leveraged in other markets. So every mile we do in a bus is very direct applicability to the product we’re launching in medium duty trucks. It means were gaining experience all the time. Our focus markets are: transit bus; school bus; medium duty; pick-up and delivery truck; construction; and terminal tractors.

Things that really revolve around the city. The idea application around electric is short range now because of energy density and cost of batteries, something that returns home at night so it can be charged. And a regular route. And that can generally be applied to cities. And cities are the area where air quality considerations are at their peak and where that has applicability. A school bus is a great duty cycle, but a school bus doesn’t do so many miles, so the payback is harder to make. A subsidized school bus is a great application for electric vehicles.

7Fehrenbacher: Do you work on international business across electrification? Do you see other geographies, like China and Europe, moving more quickly on electrification than the U.S.?

Furber: The answer is it depends a little bit. California is moving at a pace that is quicker than the rest of the U.S. right now. The grants and programs are really based around stuff in California. We are working closely with the different government bodies in California and the dealers that operate out of California. Many of our early transit and school buses are actually being placed in service in California. So I would say California is probably at a pace to how we see Europe developing. The only thing that in Europe is a little faster is if they put the CO2 regulations in Europe in 2027, that could accelerate Europe ahead of even where California is. But California has been very out there for mandates and targets for zero emissions.

China has always been further ahead. Due to a lot of government subsidy and policy, China has ramped up quicker than any other place in the world. But it’s very much based on a local supply base. Now I think its expanding into more global players being able to provide product there, and we are engaged in a number of programs in China. One around drayage trucks, one around excavators, and were working with OEMs there on those programs. Were excited about the next generation of technology happening in China as well.

Looking for zero emission products will be a global phenomenon. The good news is that as we develop product to be able to produce locally. We won’t be producing just in the U.S. and trying to fit them around the world. These products are big, they are complex and they need a local supply base and local manufacturers. Our aim is to produce in region and distribute our products accordingly and be near our customers. And with our great service and support network, we’ll be able to service those products wherever they are. 

8Fehrenbacher: What would the ideal government mandates, incentives or subsidies, across regions, be to help the market?

Furber: I think consistency and flexibility are what we look for in regulations. We want them to be as consistent as possible but we also want them to be such that they don’t dictate a particular technology. We would rather have regulations that are zero emissions and really leave it to the industry to decide how to meet those emissions regulations. That breeds some competition and innovation and it enables us to come up with the most cost effective and efficient solution for our customers. Consistency and certainty with regulations.

The other problem we have today is that people talk about regulations and what they might do, but nothing has been put in place with a date. Emissions regulations were good for us. The timing was clear, and you can work toward that and that helps you manage the investment and the timing of the investment. So we’d ask for consistency, but also clarity and certainty is what we look for in regulations. And don’t dictate the technology. Let the industry strive to come up with the best technology to meet the regulations.

9Fehrenbacher: How big do you see the electrification unit at Cummins becoming?

Furber: I think it will be a significant part of Cummins business over the next five to 10 years. It’s difficult to say how fast the market grows because of the uncertainties we’ve talked about but we see it as a significant part of the company. By actually making it a separate business unit, it shows how serious Cummins sees this as a business and for its future. And we’ve also been transparent about the level of investment.

We said we’re going to spend $500 million on the business in 2018, 2019 and 2020. The company takes it very seriously. It’s also willing to invest a significant amount of money in this business. That shows that we do see this as important for the future

10Fehrenbacher: Is the division a driver of bringing in new talent, since it’s a new and emerging tech?

Furber: It does get our name out there to a new audience. We are 100 years old this year, and we have a great reputation as a diesel engine company. We feel like we have credibility in this space and we feel like we understand our customers and our customers needs. 

I think people are excited by the work we’re doing and that Cummins, which is a 100-year-old company, can put this level of investment and business in this new business. We feel like we’re innovators. We feel like that’s our DNA. Our history comes from the fact that the chauffeur of a finance company in Columbus, Indiana, got a license for a diesel engine and introduced diesel engines in the commercial world in North America. So we feel like we’re entrepreneurial at our heart. We feel like that’s who we are. And this gives us the opportunity to showcase that.

We’re somewhat of a startup, in the electrification business, but we’re within a stable company, so we’re able to leverage the great lessons that Cummins has learned over the years. But also bring to it something new and different. Some of the acquisitions we’ve made have been small startup companies, and so we’ve been able to leverage a little bit of their agility and flexibility. So hopefully the combination of those gives us a unique positioning.

For more news on all things Cummins, click here to check out how this 100-year-old company has impacted the world of green transportation.



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