Electric big rigs are going farther and charging faster

Heavy-duty battery-powered trucks running real cargo on U.S. roads are going hundreds of miles per charge — a good sign for cutting trucking emissions.
By Jeff St. John

  • Link copied to clipboard
Battery-electric Freightliner eCascadia trucks charging at the Schneider depot in South El Monte, Calif.
Battery-electric Freightliner eCascadia trucks participating in the Run on Less – Electric Depot electric truck tests charging at the Schneider depot in South El Monte, California (NACFE)

There’s only one way to know if electric trucks can really replace diesel-fueled trucks: load them up with cargo, put them on the road and collect the data to see how far they can go.

That’s exactly what 10 freight depots in North America have been doing over the past two weeks. And so far, the data indicates that the latest electric medium-duty and heavy-duty trucks are increasingly ready to handle a lot of North America’s freight-hauling needs.

The data comes from trucks participating in Run on Less – Electric Depot, a three-week-long test-drive event organized by the North American Council for Freight Efficiency, a nonprofit research group. Back in 2021, NACFE did its first electric truck test, and the findings showed that the vehicles available then were capable of handling the shorter-haul routes of about 100 miles or less that make up roughly half of all daily freight movement in the U.S.

This round of tests indicates that today’s trucks can go quite a bit further, Mike Roeth, NACFE’s executive director, said during a Monday livestream showcasing early results. In fact, the range and the recharging speeds of the 21 trucks being tracked have roughly doubled compared to the fleets NACFE tracked in 2021, he said.

This gives us real data, real-world experience to look into the future a bit — and I think the future of battery electric commercial trucks is bright,” he said.

Medium- and heavy-duty trucks make up less than 5 percent of vehicles on the road, but they account for about 7 percent of overall U.S. emissions. Heavy-duty trucks in particular account for around 70 percent of the emissions from medium- and heavy-duty vehicles, and an even greater share of harmful air pollution, the latter of which disproportionately affects lower-income areas and communities of color.

After decades of exploring options such as compressed natural gas and biofuels, experts have turned their focus to battery-electric vehicles as the most efficient and cost-effective means of cleaning up emissions from trucking. California set a goal earlier this year mandating that its fleet of 1.8 million commercial trucks convert to emissions-free vehicles over the next two decades, and a dozen other states have passed laws or are exploring similar goals.

But longer-haul routes remain a challenge for electric trucks, due to the ever-greater size and weight of batteries needed to move heavy cargoes long distances, and a lack of high-speed charging to keep them moving on tight schedules. Given the urgency of the climate crisis, time is of the essence in sorting out performance questions — and that’s something NACFE’s data-gathering project aims to help with. 

Electric trucking by the numbers

Roeth highlighted that this month’s positive findings don’t just apply to the medium-duty electric vans and box trucks from major manufacturers like Daimler, Ford, General Motors and International and startups like Motiv that are already running shorter daily routes from depots in California, New York and Vancouver, British Columbia.

In fact, what’s most noteworthy, he said, are the numbers coming in from heavy-duty trucks being tested in California, including BYD’s semitruck, Daimler Truck North America’s Freightliner eCascadia, Volvo’s VNR, and the much-watched upstart entrant, the Tesla Semi.

Roeth cautioned that the trucks participating in the test aren’t disclosing the precise weight of their cargo loads — a frustrating” gap in data, given that heavier loads decrease range.

But he did say that these trucks are all driving standard working routes that involve hauling heavy loads — trailers filled with produce and beverages or cargo containers from seaports and intermodal cargo centers.

And so far, they’ve clocked pretty impressive daily ranges. The Volvo and Daimler electric trucks, which are in production and available on the market, have gone up to 200 miles on a single charge, and between 250 and 320 miles when charged in between routes, as with this eCascadia operating out of the South El Monte, California depot of Schneider, a major logistics company.

Freightliner eCascadia semi truck performance data from Run on Less-Electric Depot trials

As for the Tesla Semi, which is not yet in full production but is being tested by beverage giant PepsiCo at its Sacramento, California depot, the numbers kind of speak for themselves,” Roeth said. Two Tesla Semi trucks have gone 384 miles on a single charge, and one truck was able to travel just over 800 miles in a 24-hour period after being recharged by Tesla’s 750-kilowatt Megacharger, one of the fastest chargers in operation today.

Tesla semi truck performance data from Run on Less-Electric Depot trials

This data indicates that electric trucks now available for purchase, like the VNR and eCascadia, are well equipped to handle that sweet spot in what we call this medium regional haul return-to-base” space, Roeth said. That describes trucks that leave and return to a central depot and travel about 300 miles per shift.

The results from the Tesla Semi, as well as some of the higher mileage numbers from other models of electric trucks, are starting to show that longer return-to-base [routes] might actually be something that’s possible, not just hopeful,” he said.

But that’s not the same thing as long-haul interstate trucking, he pointed out. I don’t think we know enough yet to be that optimistic about the longer or more disparate routes,” he said.

Charging is the big bottleneck on the long-haul front. Public fast-charging locations are few and far between — and most are designed for electric cars, not big rigs. Even the fastest 350-kilowatt EV chargers on highways and rest stops take around 90 minutes minimum to fully charge an electric truck’s battery.

Fleet depots, on the other hand, can shuffle depleted and charged-up trucks into and out of dedicated charging spots at a pace and scale to match their daily needs, Roeth said. They can also save time by partially charging a depleted truck to send it out on a second shift, he added. These options are what make return-to-base routes much easier to electrify than interstate trucking.

Roeth cited the example of Performance Team, a freight hauler owned by global shipping giant Maersk, that shared data from a Volvo VNR running daily routes from its warehouse in Commerce, California. That truck was able to run two routes per day by returning to base after a morning route and charging for about 45 minutes to get from roughly 30 percent to 70 percent battery capacity.

Maybe the driver takes a little longer lunch or a little longer break,” he said. Then they can get another 100 miles of driving during the day before coming back.” 

Volvo VNR semi truck performance data from Run on Less-Electric Depot trials

Electric trucks are also particularly well suited to stop-and-go traffic, noted Dave Mullaney, principal at the Carbon-Free Transportation practice of think tank RMI, which helped launch NACFE and supports its work. (Canary Media is an independent affiliate of RMI.)

Mullaney has been tracking the data flowing from this month’s Run on Less trucks, including many running drayage” routes from crowded Southern California seaports and cargo terminals to distribution warehouses. Those trips tend to involve lots of travel along high-traffic freeways and surface streets — conditions where diesel-fueled trucks fare the worst, both in terms of fuel economy and pollution emissions,” since diesel engines aren’t designed to work optimally at lower speeds.

Electric trucks, on the other hand, do quite well in stop-and-start driving conditions, he said. Not only do they work as efficiently at lower speeds as at higher ones, but they can also recapture a good deal of energy through regenerative braking systems. The final bar in the chart below, from an eCascadia truck from the Schneider depot in South El Monte, indicates that it was able to recover about a quarter of its battery energy from regenerative braking over the course of about 13 hours of operation in a day. 

Chart of speeds, battery charge, and energy from charging versus regenerative braking for eCascadia electric truck
(Dave Mullaney/NACFE)

These features make electric trucks particularly suitable for replacing the aging diesel trucks that tend to do the majority of drayage-hauling in California today, and which have been targeted for earliest replacement under the state’s Advanced Clean Fleets rule, he noted. About 22 percent of trucking emissions come from heavy-duty vehicles that drive less than 250 miles per day.

There are huge questions in California about whether freight transport can be electrified,” he said. This is pretty definitive proof that one electric truck can do 13-hour days in its typical applications.”

The case for electrification is even stronger for depots that serve short urban delivery routes, such as the Ford E-Transit box trucks running routes from a Frito-Lay distribution center in the New York City borough of Queens. Those trucks can complete their daily routes with only slightly depleted batteries, giving the site a good deal of flexibility in recharging them, Mullaney noted.

Ford E-Transit truck performance data from Run on Less-Electric Depot trials

The Frito-Lay site, which plans to convert all 66 of its Class 3 trucks to electric over the coming year, is owned by warehouse facility giant Prologis, which is in the midst of renovating the property to add more chargers. But it’s able to charge its existing fleet of smaller trucks using only 19.2-kilowatt chargers — the fastest Level 2 charger available.

Data from this New York site and other shorter-haul depots in California indicate to Roeth that small depots are electrifiable now. […] The way we describe it is, the battery-electric truck can do everything the diesel truck can.”

The costs of switching to electric trucks 

Promising as it may be, the performance data coming from this month’s Run on Less test does not address every barrier around switching to electric trucks. The vehicles are still more expensive upfront than diesel trucks, and they require the reorganization of day-to-day and long-term operations as well as the bulking up of local power grid connections.

Electric trucks cost roughly three times more than their diesel-fueled counterparts. Today, the vast majority of electric trucks are in the handful of states with significant government incentives to ease that cost burden, with California in the lead.

None of these trucking companies has paid the full value of the trucks they’re driving” due to those incentives, Mullaney said. Sooner or later, they’re going to have to stand on their own two feet — and in states that aren’t as EV-friendly as California.”

On the other hand, that roster of EV-friendly states is growing, he noted. Today, 13 states and the District of Columbia have agreements to match or consider matching California’s Advanced Clean Trucks rule, a 2020 precursor to the more stringent fleets rule passed this year, which sets timelines to cut emissions from medium- and heavy-duty vehicles over the coming two decades or so.

Map of state-by-state deployment figures for medium- and heavy-duty zero-emissions trucks from 2017 to mid-2022
Dark blue states on the map passed legislation to follow California’s lead on its previous truck emissions rules from 2020, while light blue states are considering such mandates. (Calstart)

Even states without mandates or incentives could tap into the benefits of electric trucks, he said. The Inflation Reduction Act passed by the U.S. Congress last year created tax credits that can return up to 30 percent of the cost of commercial electric vehicles and charging equipment to buyers.

Electric trucks can also cost less to maintain and operate than diesel-engine trucks, according to Mullaney. A big factor in that equation is the cost of electricity compared to diesel fuel.

Maintenance is also expected to be lower for electric trucks, given that they have fewer moving parts, don’t run as hot, wear down their brakes more slowly due to regenerative braking, and lack the complex emissions-control systems of diesel trucks. NACFE predicts that overall maintenance costs for battery electric trucks will be 40 to 70 percent lower than for diesel engine trucks as fleets adopt them at scale.

The greater efficiency and lower refueling and maintenance costs of electric trucks could soon bring their total cost of ownership — TCO in industry parlance — to within parity with diesel trucks in the U.S., even without incentives. According to 2022 study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, cost parity could come as soon as 2030 for smaller trucks and by 2035 for heavier trucks.

There are also softer costs” to consider, Roeth said. Electric trucks are quite a bit more comfortable and less stressful for drivers to operate, with smoother acceleration without the halts and jerks typical of heavy vehicle transmissions, he noted. We’re pretty sure that drivers love these trucks, and fleets that have electric trucks will retain their drivers more than fleets that don’t,” he said. The cost to hire or replace a truck driver is significant.”

That view was backed up by testimonials from drivers participating in the Run on Less – Electric Depot event. I do about 400-plus miles a day,” Hernesto Sandoval, a Tesla Semi driver at PepsiCo, says in a NACFE video. Being in a good truck, a comfortable drive, is great. It makes a world of difference in my day.”

But one of the biggest short-term barriers to electrifying fleets is getting utilities to expand the power grid to serve the hefty charging needs of electric trucks.

Henrik Holland, head of Prologis Mobility, the Prologis subsidiary that installs and manages EV charging for its customers, noted that it’s incorporating the charging and grid upgrades at the Queens site used by Frito-Lay into broader site renovations. The project will take around 12 months to complete, he said.

The companies have come up with workarounds to handle the first round of Ford E-Transit trucks to arrive on site, installing six 19.2-kilowatt chargers that can handle the site’s relatively low charging needs.

But with larger trucks, we’re talking about much bigger batteries,” Roeth said. That means much heavier charging loads, depending on how many trucks need to be charged simultaneously and how quickly each needs to be charged.

The PepsiCo site in Sacramento had to connect to a separate substation to secure the 3 megawatts of power required to fast-charge its 22 Tesla Semi trucks. The Schneider site in South El Monte requires 6 megawatts of power to supply the 16 chargers and 32 charging cables it’s installed to recharge its 92 Freightliner eCascadia trucks.

It’s an incredible amount of lead time and legwork to go engage the utility, secure the availability, permit and deliver the construction, and erect the hardware itself, followed by commissioning, testing and interoperability,” Amanda Devoe, PepsiCo’s transformation and strategy director, said of the company’s work to support Tesla Semi charging at its Sacramento depot.

The depots participating in Run on Less reported that it takes one to three years to get the grid infrastructure needed to support the amount of charging they’re contemplating, Roeth noted. Utility charging infrastructure is taking way too long. But fleets are taking action on that,” with options including portable chargers hooked up to batteries or microturbines or more permanent microgrid installations of solar panels, batteries and generators

Even so, the cost of new grid infrastructure to supply electricity may still remain lower than the cost of other decarbonization options, like green hydrogen. For years, clean energy and transportation experts have argued over whether carbon-free hydrogen or electricity should be the primary route for long-haul trucking to cut its carbon emissions.

But the kind of performance data emerging from this month’s test runs suggest that electric trucks, even with the many challenges they face, are a viable and preferable option to alternatives like hydrogen.

The battery-electric truck is highly efficient when you do get the power to the site,” he said. You’re not trucking fuel or pipelining fuel around the country — that electricity is there.”

Jeff St. John is director of news and special projects at Canary Media. He covers innovative grid technologies, rooftop solar and batteries, clean hydrogen, EV charging and more.