As electrification is seeing sharp growth in the light-duty vehicle market, the trucking industry is also making inroads in this area. Changes have been relatively modest so far, but the pace of adoption is expected to accelerate quickly, according to an in-depth report from a trucking non-profit organization, due to the simplicity of electric truck designs and firms wanting to cut fuel costs. Electric trucks are still relatively expensive to produce, but costs are falling with improving battery technology. As batteries become even less expensive, fleet operators will find electric trucks even more attractive.
“Fleet operators are making decisions based on economics instead of emotion, analyzing the total costs for a vehicle over its total lifespan.”
Even though solutions for challenges facing trucking will vary from company to company, electrification can bring numerous opportunities and benefits to the industry, said the North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE), the organization which conducted the research. “Commercial battery electric vehicles are not the choice for every application or market, yet they will likely have an increasing role in the commercial vehicle market and in freight transportation,” said Rick Mihelic, director Future Technologies Studies of NACFE in a statement.
Companies from Tesla to major freight carriers including FedEx have put electric trucks on the road, while potential high cost savings are motivating others to make the transition faster than they originally thought. Even established automakers such as Daimler and Volvo are currently manufacturing electric trucks.
“Fleet operators are making decisions based on economics instead of emotion, analyzing the total costs for a vehicle over its total lifespan,” NACFE’s Mike Roeth told The Fuse.
Roeth says delivery trucks have a large potential to shift to electrification despite many in the industry having longstanding reservations. It makes economic sense for delivery vehicles that have predictable routes and travel less than 300 miles per day to switch to electrification, Roeth says. Ones that mostly drive in city areas for local package deliveries and have short-haul routes provide fleet operators predictability when accessing charging stations. Long-haul, heavy-duty vehicles that travel on disparate routes and haul volumes for more than 400-500 miles per day, however, will not likely shift to electric drivetrains, at least not anytime soon. They have a more difficult time using batteries efficiently and cost-effectively. Because of the numerous hurdles, some heavy-duty trucks may not find electrification economical until 2025 or 2030.
Altogether, medium- and heavy-duty vehicles account for more than 20 percent of the country’s petroleum use despite making up less than five percent of the overall fleet. In the United States, where $53 billion worth of goods are transported every day, freight deliveries are expected to increase by 40 percent through 2045, putting added stress on the industry and providing further motivation to find creative ways to cut costs. For many medium-duty vehicles—such as school buses—it will be simpler to adopt electrification, but they do not consume as much fuel as larger freight trucks.
Electrification has a number of advantages over diesel-engine trucks. Higher up-front costs for electric trucks can be a deterrent, but when total cost of ownership is calculated, they are competitive. “The calculations comparing the two are tough and cause people’s heads to spin,” said Roethe. “It’s a complex equation: Where to buy the electric engines, what the cost of charging is, where the charging stations are, what fuel prices will be since they fluctuate all the time.” Even with the higher initial costs, some fleet operators find electric trucks economically attractive because of incentives such as grants and tax breaks.
“The technology is on the steep part of the development S-curve, where big improvements are regularly expected.”
Electric trucks have more simplistic designs and weigh less than diesel vehicles. Diesel-fueled trucks include a number of heavy components, such as fluids, emissions systems, exhaust systems, cooling systems, and mountings. The report found that diesel and electric trucks can haul the same amount of weight. Diesel powertrains also include fluids, emissions systems, exhaust systems, cooling systems, mountings, etc. that in total represent a significant weight reduction when removed. Diesel powertrains also include fluids, emissions systems, exhaust systems, cooling systems, mountings, etc. that in total represent a significant weight reduction when removed.
Moreover, there is increasing upside potential for electric vehicles over the longer term. Battery advances will continue to cut vehicles’ weight, increase capacity, and reduce costs, while diesel-fueled trucks will remain beholden to global oil price volatility. “The technology is on the steep part of the development S-curve, where big improvements are regularly expected,” the report says.
Challenges & other solutions
There are, of course, a number of challenges ahead for the trucking industry as it transitions to electrification. Charging infrastructure is the main obstacle, but Roeth believes it can be overcome with collaboration between trucking companies, utilities, and other stakeholders. “The problem is not the battery, it’s not the trucks, it’s the infrastructure,” he told The Fuse. “Trucks are not like personal vehicles that can be charged in garages. But if people buy electric trucks, the infrastructure problem will be figured out.”
The charging deficiency, along with worries about performance, may cause fleet operators to balk at using electricity as a fuel. NACFE put together its recent report to dispel myths about electric trucks and highlight how their growth can positively affect the sector—even if the transition phase is unpredictable and experiences setbacks. “Off-shift charging of vehicles is possible today with existing systems,” the report says. “The challenge is high speed charging. BEVs needing sub-30 minute charging speeds require high capacity production charging systems that today are only in the conceptual phase.”
With the massive growth in freight deliveries and the trucking sector expected in the coming decades, a variety of solutions will be necessary.
Besides electrification, the trucking sector has other methods to reduce fuel consumption and cut costs. As the NACFE report noted, no one solution will fit all companies. In SAFE’s analysis of the trucking sector (available here ), the industry will likely be an early adopter of autonomous technology on highways. Freight transportation on interstates is typically more predictable and less complex than on urban roads, allowing for smooth integration. Moreover, savings from the adoption of twin-33s (linked 33-foot trailers), which can currently operate in only 20 states, could be enormous. Their adoption throughout the entire United States could potentially cut an estimated 23 billion gallons of diesel by 2050, while the widespread use of existing platooning technologies could save another 20 billion gallons of diesel during the same timeframe.
With the massive growth in freight deliveries and the trucking sector expected in the coming decades, a variety of solutions will be necessary, particularly since the global diesel market will remain tight due to growing demand, refining bottlenecks, and oil price volatility. Electrification, based on NACFE’s findings, could play a larger role than many had expected.