When will EV trucks be ready for large-scale adoption? It’s complicated

New policies are pushing zero-emissions trucks onto U.S. roads, but the most polluting long-haul routes will be the hardest to electrify.

Electric semi tractor, cargo truck and school bus charging at Portland's Swan Island charging terminal
Electric Island in Portland, Oregon, one of what will need to be many medium- and heavy-duty EV charging sites to support the growth of zero-carbon trucking (Daimler Trucks North America)
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Last week was full of important developments in the ongoing effort to electrify the nation’s full range of trucks. The Environmental Protection Agency published its clean trucks proposal — the first major shift in EPA truck emissions rules in years — setting new fuel standards that would cut emissions of smog-forming nitrogen oxide from trucks starting in 2027. Environmental groups responded by criticizing the proposal, saying that it wouldn’t reduce a major source of air pollution fast enough, while trucking industry groups warned that the proposal would rapidly increase costs for new trucks, causing truckers to keep driving older, more polluting models even longer. 

As if to counter claims that clean-truck technology isn’t evolving quickly enough, the Department of Energy released a report on the very same day highlighting the progress of battery-electric and fuel-cell electric trucks in reaching cost parity with their diesel-fueled counterparts. 

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According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory study, that target will be reached by 2030 for smaller battery-electric trucks and by 2035 for heavy-duty trucks that travel less than 500 miles a day, while hydrogen fuel cells will become cost-competitive for longer-haul trucks. 

The report includes a White House fact sheet offering a laundry list of the federal funding available to support this transition. Truck manufacturers will potentially be able to access funding from DOE’s Loan Programs Office or sell to the federal government under its zero-emissions vehicle mandate. Electric and low-carbon-fueled trucks will be able to charge and fuel at stations to be deployed with $7.5 billion in funding contained in last year’s infrastructure law.

Truck manufacturers will also be able to access research and development funding such as the $127 million for DOE’s SuperTruck 3 program, its latest iteration of a long-running program focused on making trucks more fuel-efficient, and the 21st Century Truck Partnership, a public-private R&D program that includes major truck makers Daimler, Ford, Navistar and Volvo, among others. 

These are among the companies that have been rolling out new models of electric-powered vans, panel trucks, long-haul semitrucks and specialty terminal tractors at an increasingly rapid pace over the past several years. A July report from consultancy M.J. Bradley tallied more than 100 models of medium- and heavy-duty trucks, vans and buses commercially available in the U.S.

Four or five years ago, there was a lot of skepticism” that electric trucks could compete on cost and range with fossil-fueled vehicles, Michael Berube, deputy assistant secretary for sustainable transportation at DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, said during an EV webinar last week. Today that has really flipped around.”

DOE’s new study indicates that electric-powered trucks will be cheaper to buy, own, and operate” than gasoline and diesel incumbents for nearly half of all trucks on the road by 2030, he said. By 2035, that expands to almost the entire truck fleet.” 

That’s a vital measure for how quickly electric trucks can expect to be adopted, Berube said. Unlike light-duty consumer vehicles, which become popular (or not) based on mass-market trends far beyond cost, commercial trucks tend to be replaced in relatively short order when new models offer lower long-term costs than previous ones, he said. 

This switch will have an outsize impact on reducing the share of greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector, which is responsible for more than one-third of U.S. emissions. While medium- and heavy-duty trucks make up less than 5 percent of vehicles on the road, they account for about 29 percent of the sector’s total greenhouse gas emissions, or about 7 percent of the U.S. total. 

Different trucks, different use cases, different pathways to electrification 

But general data points like this come with a catch: Not all classes of trucks are as primed to make the switch to electric as others are. This chart from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s report highlights the disproportionately large share of emissions that come from heavy trucks, which make up about 40 percent of the truck stock but generate about 70 percent of transportation-related emissions. 

Chart of greenhouse gas emissions of different classes of trucks in the United States
(NREL)

These heavy-duty trucks are going to be the hardest to transition off of fossil fuels. This chart from the same report estimates the proportion of different truck classes on U.S. roads over the next 30 years. It projects that battery electric vehicles (BEV) and fuel-cell electric vehicles (FCEV) will dominate the light- and medium-duty truck markets, whereas hybrid electric vehicles (HEV) and diesel and natural-gas-fueled internal combustion vehicles (ICEV) will remain a significant majority of heavy-duty trucks.

Chart of battery, fuel cell and internal combustion engine trucks on U.S. roads through 2050
(NREL)

The gap between mandates on the types of trucks that can be sold and the truck stock that remains in service represents the challenge of vehicle stock turnover,” the NREL report states. Simply put, it takes time to replace working trucks with new models — and if those new models aren’t cost-competitive, they won’t replace trucks already on the road if targeted incentives aren’t enacted. 

Because trucking is so varied and diverse, there are going to be use cases where the industry will electrify really fast,” Mike Roeth, executive director of the North American Council for Freight Efficiency, said in a Tuesday interview. And there are others that will be slower — really slow.” 

NACFE worked with nonprofit research group RMI to run a series of electric truck test drives last year, called Run on Less, which indicated that a lot of shorter-haul truck routes are ready to switch to all-electric today. (Canary Media is an independent affiliate of RMI.) 

Those test drives included heavy-duty electric tractor-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.

Of those vehicle classes, electric vans are leading the pack in terms of early adoption, with companies including UPS, FedEx and Amazon planning large-scale conversions of fleets that can do daily deliveries and recharge at depots overnight. Roeth said that advance orders from U.S. companies for these medium-duty delivery vehicles now exceed 120,000.

Another target for early adoption is heavy-duty terminal tractors, the big rigs that move cargo containers within ports and to nearby logistics centers, he said. Recent reports from NACFE underscore the potential for electrifying these vehicles relatively quickly — I could see by the 2030 timeframe all terminal tractors being electric,” he said. 

Terminal tractors are a relatively small market — only about 5,000 to 10,000 of these vehicles are sold in the U.S. every year, he said. But converting them to electric could have a major impact on the air pollution these types of vehicles produce, much of it in communities with higher proportions of lower-income residents who’ve suffered for decades from disproportionate health risks associated with diesel exhaust. 

As for long-haul semitrucks, companies such as Daimler, Volvo and Tesla are set to start delivering electric vehicles in late 2022 and 2023, driven by demand from major shippers including Walmart and nationwide freight companies such as NFI Industries. But this is a much trickier class of vehicles to switch to electric, for many reasons. 

Because of their lengthier routes, long-haul semitrucks can’t return to central charging depots every night, which means a network of fast-charging stations will need to be built out along major transportation routes. And they’re under intense pressure to deliver cargo as quickly as possible, which makes waiting hours to complete a full recharge a tough sell, Roeth said. 

Charging and grid infrastructure: The elephant in the room 

That brings up what Roeth called the elephant in the room, which is infrastructure for charging.” Today there are only a handful of charging sites in the U.S. equipped to serve the needs of heavy-duty electric trucks. 

Early pilot projects, such as utility Portland General Electric and truck manufacturer Daimler’s Electric Island station in Portland, Oregon, are still awaiting the development of the next generation of fast-charging technology to offer the short recharging times needed to support truckers’ tight schedules. 

Charging isn’t just a problem for long-haul trucks, Roeth added. The early adopters will charge at their home base, but even then, you’ve got to get a lot of power to that site.” 

Much of the focus on federal and state EV charging funding and incentives has been on building enough public charging to ease the range anxiety” of consumers looking at switching to an EV. But medium- and heavy-duty vehicles are likely to cause the most immediate problems for utilities and fleet owners trying to match the capacity of the power grid with the electricity demands of lots of big vehicles.

States such as California, New York, Massachusetts and others that have set hard mandates for increasing the sales of zero-emissions trucks within their borders will be the first to face these power-grid strains, Roeth said. 

They’ve also got to make sure they’re working on the infrastructure,” he added. All the state [departments of transportation] are putting together their transportation electrification plans this summer, in order to get some of the $7.5 billion in infrastructure money that’s available” from the federal infrastructure law. 

DOE’s Berube noted last week that the same dynamics that could lead to companies switching from fossil-fueled to electric trucks and vans en masse could also drive a rapid increase in charging demand. 

Unlike light-duty, where the charging infrastructure can grow each year as the market grows, for trucks you may see a big upfront impact,” he said. We need to think [about] developing that refueling infrastructure for the truck side so we’re ready in 20252026.”

Roeth sees the need for grid infrastructure designed for big charging loads arriving even sooner. I think it’s going to become a real barrier in about 18 months. That’s when the fleets will be coming.”

Jeff St. John is director of news and special projects at Canary Media.