The U.S. Forest Service is adept at exploring new frontiers. The most recent one? Electric trucks.
The federal agency is running an experiment lasting 12 months to determine if battery-powered pickups can meet the challenge of traveling through some of the nation’s most remote and rugged areas for operations in the field.
The Biden administration aims to have all new vehicles for a government that is electric before 2035; this first-of-its-kind program offers a chance to allow the Forest Service to see how the Ford F-150 Lightning performs in different conditions and evaluate the extent to which its range, towing, and other features are compared to the parts of gas-powered trucks that are currently in operation.
“As one of the premier land management agencies, we’re about conservation, we’re about enhancing the environment, and so this is the right thing to do, to start to move away from the vehicle emissions that we currently are producing,” said Gina Owens, regional forester for the agency’s eastern region. “We’ve got a ways to go, and we need to be doing our part, so this test is an important first step.”
Forest Service officials announced the pilot program on Friday at Ford’s manufacturing plant located in Dearborn, Mich., with a horse, a Ford Model T, and a brand modern F-150 Lightning, representing the development of the agency’s transportation options since its inception in 1903.
“We’re ushering in a whole new fleet of workhorse in the 21st century,” said James Simino, forest supervisor for the Huron-Manistee National Forests.
Huron-Manistee is in Michigan, Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania, and White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire are each testing the F-150 Lightning that Kelley Blue Book has called the “best electric truck” on the market. The Forest Service was able to purchase the vehicles following it was announced that the General Services Administration made them available to agencies last year.
The trucks come with four-wheel drive, which can provide up to 7,700 pounds of towing capacity, and the range is 230 miles with a full charge. They can be recharged throughout the night using the Level 2 charger that doesn’t require specialized infrastructure.
Much of the current research on electric vehicles has focused on cost, environmental advantages, and consumer perceptions. The Forest Service’s study will evaluate the reliability and performance. The entire year-long test will give officials a chance to examine the vehicles in various conditions, including weather and terrain, and also to determine how employees can use them in their everyday work.
“We know that the introduction of electric vehicles has tremendous [potential] to curb emissions, but what we don’t know very much about is how electric vehicles can work as land management tools,” Sonya Sachdeva, who is a Forest Service research scientist, announced at the time of the announcement. “We want to ensure that these vehicles are promoting safety, efficiency and functionality.”
The information gathered can be utilized to analyze electric vehicles’ advantages and drawbacks and plan new charging infrastructure.
Owens has said she is anticipating fears regarding the reliability and range of electric trucks from employees who have yet to become acquainted with the technology. When they made the Forest Service switch from horses to Model Ts at the beginning of the 20th century, many were skeptical that the vehicles would be unable to run on gas on the road. However, she added that the change “certainly has worked out well.”
“Change can be difficult and uncomfortable. But this isn’t the first time that we’ve made changes to the manner we travel through National forests.” Owens said. “We know we will encounter issues along this journey and will continually analyze them and figure out the best path forward because that’s what we do in the Forest Service.”
Gerdes adds that GT Sophy’s feat could be a model for other areas in which robots and humans interact. In the game Gran Turismo, he points out that the AI needs to be able to balance the challenge of finding the fastest way around the track while also balancing the challenge of working effortlessly with human beings who can be unpredictable. “If we do have an AI system that can make some sophisticated decisions in that environment, that might have applicability–not just for automated driving,” Gerdes states, “but also for interactions like robotic surgery or robots which assist with home maintenance. If you’re working on a project that requires a human and a robot work with each other to transport something, it’s somewhat, but not necessarily, quite different from the robot attempting to accomplish it by itself.”
The article bearing”AI Champions, “AI Champions” was adapted to be published in the May 2022 issue of Scientific American.