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Electric trucks could handle millions of short-haul routes across North America

Half of U.S. truck routes cover less than 100 miles. Recent road tests of a bevy of battery-powered trucks show they’re ready to take over.
By Jeff St. John

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Battery-powered trucks like this Volvo VNR model could effectively replace half the U.S. freight fleet, according to early results from the Run on Less–Electric test (Run on Less by NACFE)

Mike Roeth, executive director of the North American Council for Freight Efficiency, is confident that the U.S. and Canada can convert more than 5 million medium- and heavy-duty trucks from fossil fuels to electric without disrupting the flow of cargo they carry. And he has the data to back it up.

That data comes from Run on Less–Electric, a just-concluded test conducted by major freight companies across six states and two Canadian provinces. Over three weeks, Run on Less collected data on electric delivery vans, box trucks, port terminal tractors and heavy-duty semitractor-trailers making standard daily deliveries, ranging from taking beer and potato chips to grocery stores to moving cargo containers between seaports and distribution centers.

Roeth has coordinated two previous Run on Less events to collect real-time data on new high-efficiency truck designs, working in partnership with nonprofit research organization RMI and with support from the Department of Energy’s SuperTruck program. (Canary Media is an independent affiliate of RMI.)

But this is the first test that focused on electric trucks — and according to preliminary data and reports from the companies and drivers involved, the trucks are ready for action. 

Roeth described a few snags in the test drives during a Wednesday event at Climate Week NYC, such as downtime events on a few of the trucks.” But outside a handful of hang-ups like these, all of the trucks operated very well over the three weeks.”

In fact, the feedback from the 13 participating companies, which included Anheuser-Busch, Frito-Lay, NFI and DHL, indicated that these electric trucks are performing better than recent diesel…introductions,” he said. That’s not surprising, given that electric-drivetrain-equipped trucks are considered to be easier to operate and are cheaper to maintain than internal combustion engine models.

What hasn’t been as clear to the trucking industry is whether electric trucks can match the range and refueling flexibility of their fossil-fueled predecessors. But that wasn’t a problem for the vehicles running the daily duty cycles chosen for this test, Roeth said. Most, in fact, never dropped below 50 percent charge on their batteries, and they had plenty of time to slow-charge overnight without straining the power grids they were connected to.

Roughly half of all freight trips completed each day in the U.S. are less than 100 miles in length, so it’s a significant finding that electric vehicles can make those deliveries with no major problems, Michael Berube, DOE deputy assistant secretary for sustainable transportation, said at Wednesday’s event.

Only a few years ago, the conventional wisdom held that we’ll never electrify trucks,” he said. But the reality is, as [this research has] shown, there are some parts of that market that are ready today…where it will make economic sense to switch over, between the lower fuel costs and the lower operation costs of these electric vehicles.”

That, in turn, could have an outsized impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, the largest single source of U.S. carbon emissions by sector, said Jason Mathers, director of vehicles and freight strategy at the Environmental Defense Fund.

Trucks make up less than 4 percent of total road vehicles in the U.S. but account for roughly 25 percent of carbon dioxide emissions. This is because they weigh a lot more than passenger cars and they’re on the road more often, Mathers said. Nearly half of those trucks, about 5.2 million, fall into the categories of vehicles represented in this month’s Run on Less test. But right now, less than 1 percent of those trucks are electric.

Switching all 5.2 million of these trucks to electric could slash about 100 million metric tons of carbon emissions from the U.S. trucking sector’s annual total of just under 450 million metric tons. The switch could also make even bigger cuts to emissions of nitrogen oxides and particulate matter that are harmful to human health, Roeth said.

That’s [equivalent to] about 25 coal-fired power plants that would be eliminated if all those trucks went electric,” he said. And all of those trucks are electrifiable.” 

(Run on Less by NACFE)

The electric trucks are arriving. Will parity on total cost of ownership follow? 

Roeth’s view is backed up by the plans major truck manufacturers are hatching to rapidly expand into the EV space, according to Chet France, an EDF consultant and former division director for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. At another Climate Week NYC panel on Wednesday, France discussed a July report from consultancy MJ Bradley that counted more than 100 commercially available models of medium- and heavy-duty trucks, vans and buses available in the U.S. and more than 500 worldwide.

Of the types of trucks the report surveyed, about half of the U.S. market is expected to reach cost parity with fossil-fueled vehicles by 2025 on a total-cost-of-ownership” basis, he said. That means that the vehicles may cost more upfront — electric trucks are still roughly three times the cost of fossil-fueled counterparts — but will cost their owners less over their lifespans in terms of fuel, operations and maintenance.

The Run on Less test event assessed heavy-duty electric semitractor-trailers from Volvo, Peterbilt, BYD and Freightliner; terminal tractors from Kalmar, Lonestar SV and Orange EV; medium-duty box trucks from Peterbilt and Lion; and cargo and step vans from Lightning eMotors, Motiv and Workhorse. Most of these models are now in production, and some of them have already been in the field for as long as a year, Roeth said.

Whether it’s cost-effective for an individual fleet operator to make the switch to electric depends on a more complex and long-range set of factors than this Run on Less assessment was able to calculate, Roeth conceded. This is a complex introduction of technology. You have to look at all the pluses and minuses.”

Range and charging availability are clearly important factors, said Rob Reich, chief administrative officer of fleet operator Schneider. Your length of haul is really important for assessing what these electric trucks can do for you.” His company won grants to test 50 electric semitractor-trailers at its Southern California distribution hub, with daily routes to and from ports that are well within the vehicles’ range limits.

But it will take time to build the on-the-road data sets to give drivers and companies the confidence to push range boundaries, in Roeth’s view. Weather, weight, traffic patterns and road conditions all have important effects on range. Some of the drivers who participated in the Run on Less test reported that the relatively high levels of charge maintained on the trucks they drove was an outgrowth of them trying to be cautious,” Roeth said. Range anxiety is a real concern for drivers.”

Charging is another important variable. All of the Run on Less vehicles charged overnight at their home bases, allowing for relatively low demand on the power grids serving the sites. That’s a rational and low-cost approach for trucks running daily routes, but as the number of electric trucks increases, it could start to push the boundaries of a utility’s capability to serve that load.

James Sherman, chief operating officer of New Jersey-based electric vehicle fleet management company Climate Change Mitigation Technologies, said in a Tuesday webinar that the municipalities and companies his company supplies with electric trucks and buses haven’t yet faced significant trouble installing the level of charging they require.

In most instances, we start out with two to four vehicles,” he said. When you get to 10 to 20 trucks is when you need to get a service upgrade” from the local utility — and that can be a costly and time-consuming process.

These uncertainties are a risk to fleet owners and operators that can complicate the cost-benefit calculations that otherwise favor electric trucks, Sherman said. To mitigate that risk, a variety of companies are creating as-a-service” structures that can allow school districts, public transit agencies and private-sector fleet operators to spread over time the costs of electric vehicles, charging infrastructure and ongoing maintenance and battery replacement. Those kinds of structures can take the huge upfront capital cost out of the equation,” he said, which lets the whole thing happen.”

Federal incentives like those being proposed in the infrastructure bill passed by the Senate this summer and the budget reconciliation bill being crafted by Democrats in the House of Representatives could also help ease the upfront costs and longer-range risks of making the switch, Berube said.

States are also incentivizing EV purchasing and charging infrastructure, with California and New York offering the largest amounts of money. And California’s Advanced Clean Trucks rule mandates the switch to all zero-emissions truck sales over the coming decades, which puts fleet owners on notice that they won’t be able to delay the switch from fossil fuels indefinitely, EDF senior attorney Larissa Koehler said in Tuesday’s webinar. (A bill proposed by New York lawmakers this year would set similar mandates in that state.)

In the long run, utilities will have to make significant investments to manage the grid impact of these electric trucks, EDF’s Mathers said during Wednesday’s event. If every one of the 5.2 million trucks in North America in the categories tested in this assessment were to switch to electric, their total power demand would approach 169 terawatt-hours per year, or about 5 percent of U.S. grid capacity today.

I’d encourage every utility company out there to dive into these results,” he said. The fact is, we do need a lot of planning and lead time to get the infrastructure into place at the time and scale we need.”

The limiting factors will not be the technology,” Mathers added. It will be the supporting actions we take as a society to [advance] electrification.”

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.