Electric semi-trucks are coming to roads near you—eventually.
They are clean, green, and very expensive machines, though they will pay off after several years
As with every class of EV rolling out or in development, one of the biggest obstacles to adoption is the lack of charging infrastructure—particularly acute when talking about big rigs.
Electric cars now make up about two percent of sales and growing. Electric trucks are a little slower to adapt but are nonetheless plowing ahead in their adoption by the market. Big truck makers MAN and Scania have started pouring almost $2 billion into electric truck R&D. Volvo has a fleet of 70 electric big rigs operating in Southern California. Tesla may or may not start cranking out a few trucks at its own factory once it figures out where to get enough batteries for them. And Daimler subsidiary Freightliner has a demo fleet of electric trucks 40 strong, and will introduce commercially available models in numerous classes next year.
So is the trucking industry switching to electric? Eventually.
“The pandemic delayed introduction of electric trucks, creating delays in development and testing,” said Don Ake, vice president of commercial vehicles for Freight Transportation Research. “But it appears there will be some limited production in 2021. There is increased competition between the large OEMs and several new players, so there is a race to get the products to market quickly.”
Medium-sized electric trucks may get here first.
“We see that electrification adoption is accelerating across commercial vehicles starting with the light commercial vehicles and buses and continuing with the medium-duty trucks because they are reaching Total Cost of Ownership parity with internal combustion engines pretty much today,” said Beyza Sarioglu, senior director of strategy and business planning for commerical vehicles at Dana. “Especially in urban and regional use cases such as distribution of goods and local services like construction because they require smaller batteries and with their duty cycles they get more benefit from regenerative braking, and different technologies electrification offers. Long-haul, on the other hand, heavy-duty trucks are expected to reach TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) parity in the 2030 timeframe. It’s not going to be a quick transition.”
“We have the technology today to make medium-duty trucks work for short-local runs,” said Ricardo Rodriguez-Long, who works in asset management for US 395 Motors and spent 30 years in heavy-duty truck dealer management. “Regarding 26,000 pounds or more, EV trucks face a lot of obstacles due to the use of power (energy consumed) and the need for bigger payload.”
Several of Freightliner’s fleet of 40 electric trucks are on a demo tour of the country as you read this. We caught up with the tour and drove four of the trucks to see how viable electric heavy-duty trucks are.
Let’s start with the Freightliner big rig, the eCascadia. It’s based on the diesel-powered Cascadia frame, which Freightliner says is the most successful heavy-duty long-distance truck in North America. Freightliner’s parent company Daimler Trucks North America owns 40 percent of the heavy-duty truck market in North America.
The eCascadia is a Class 8 truck, commonly referred to as a semi-truck, tractor trailer or big rig. It has power ranging from 360 to 525 hp and a GVWR of up to 82,000 pounds. The truck can be configured with single or tandem electric axles, with electric motors taking the space once occupied by differentials. It has a battery capacity of up to 475 kWh (almost five Tesla Model S sedans) and a range of 250 miles. The Class 8 Freightliner eCascadia will go into production in late 2022.
While the diesel-powered Cascadia sells for somewhere in the $139,000 range, electric big rigs like this, depending on how they’re configured, can cost two or three times as much. So fleet buyers have to look at total cost of ownership, or TCO. Over the lifetime of a truck, an electric drivetrain will pay for itself—exactly when depends on how it’s used.
I got to drive an eCascadia for a couple laps in the Dignity Health Sports Park in Los Angeles. It was actually easier to drive than a conventional diesel big rig, since there was not only no shifting required, and the amount of braking necessary was reduced by the presence of regenerative braking, which slowed the truck at an adjustable rate as you lifted off the gas. The drive was quiet, except for some rattling over the uneven surface of the stadium’s parking lot, and the power and torque delivery was smooth. Those truck seats are a little more like separate thrill rides in the way they bounce up and down independently. Only thing missing was a CB.
Freightliner has said that this particular setup would be best suited to local deliveries, particularly hauling containers from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach up to the Los Angeles Transportation Center Intermodal Facility, where the containers are loaded onto freight trains. If you did that run three times a day that would be 180 miles, which would be about right for this setup, Freightliner said. Then you park it overnight to recharge. Or park it for lunch while it recharges to 80 percent of battery capacity in 90 minutes.
Next, I drove a Class 6-7 truck, the Freightliner eM2. This large boxy rig has a GVWR of between 26,000 and 33,000 pounds and can go up to 230 miles on a charge. Battery capacity is as high as 315 kWh and it can recharge up to 80 percent in 60 minutes. It’s powered by a single electric axle. In the parking lot this one bounced even more than the Class 8 truck, but that was just because the cargo hold was empty. Just as in a pickup truck, the ride evens out with a full load in the bed. Look for this truck to be in production, and for prices to be released, in early 2023.
The Walk-In Van, what might also be called a step van, has been offered by Freightliner Custom Chassis since 2010. The one you see here is a new version called the MT50e. It offers 303 peak hp from a 220 kWh battery giving a 125-mile range. This application is perfect for an EV, since all that delivery vans do all day is stop and start (think Amazon—why all Amazon vans aren’t electric is beyond me).
This one was a big aluminum box with plenty of room inside for shelves and various products that need to be delivered all over a city. With 125 miles of range it can more than handle a day’s driving around any big- or medium-sized city. Return on investment on a van like this is about five years or so. It will be in production in late 2021.
And lastly, I got to drive a school bus, albeit without any screaming kids in back. One of the entities Daimler owns is Thomas Built Buses. This model is the Saf-T-Liner C2 Jouley Electric School Bus. Range is up to 135 miles from a 226-kWh battery. The motor makes 295 peak horsepower.
A school bus is another perfect client for electric power, since it does a lot of stop-and-go driving in the mornings, then parks to be recharged, then does a lot more stop-and-go driving in the afternoons.
Freightliner lists capacity of this bus at up to 81 passengers, though I don’t see how you’d cram 81 people onto this unless they were very small and sat three to a bench.
The school bus drove just like any other school bus, too, Freightliner said, so you don’t have to retrain your drivers. One good thing about this bus is that it’s already available. Over 50 of them have been sold to date.
So why electric? In addition to no tailpipe emissions and very little sound, the advantage of an electric truck is in that phrase fleet managers love: total cost of ownership (TCO). An electric truck may cost two to three times what a conventional truck costs new, but over its service lifetime it saves you money. There’s much less maintenance, fuel costs plummet, and drivers and bystanders both enjoy a quieter environment.
Why aren’t these in fleets everywhere right now? There aren’t any out yet. And even when they do become available, fleet buyers may balk.
“There are several barriers to adoption,” said Ake. “The trucks have new engines so they still have to prove they can hold up to standard over-the-road rough conditions. There needs to be the charging infrastructure set up to handle the expected volume. The trucks must make sense from a cost standpoint. These are commercial vehicles. Fleet usage depends on costs, not environmental issues. The government will need to provide subsidies for the use of electric trucks for a period of time, until advanced technology lowers the cost of operation.
“Most fleets will not spend the extra cost for an electric truck at the beginning. There are too many risks and uncertainties. The increased usage will come from having to meet stricter environmental regulations. It would be expected that government subsidies will be provided in the transition. That’s why the big OEMs and the new companies are developing electric trucks. They expect the regulations to tighten to the point where low emission trucks are basically mandated.”
Rodriguez-Long sees many problems that have to be addressed before electric trucks take over the roads.
“The cost of this technology is very high at the moment,” he said. “Just like the EV cars, the makers will have to adjust their pricing and apply profits from other products to get closer to something that makes financial sense for the buyers.”
Sticker price alone is not all there is to overcome.
“The biggest obstacle is the infrastructure or lack thereof. To charge 3,000 to 10,000 pounds of batteries in a short time is challenging. No one is talking about the cost, but electricity will need to be generated somehow to be able to service these new chargers. I have attended two significant conferences this year on this topic. None of my questions was answered! Everyone is assuming or pushing for that the electricity providers will work some kind of deal with the national or local governments. The thought is that the government is in charge of providing the infrastructure. Assuming that electricity will remain low on price is not a good assumption.”
And then there’s that sticker shock when buying a new electric truck.
“Total cost of ownership over a truck’s lifetime is lower but fleet buyers may balk at the initial cost being two to three times higher, how can truck makers get around that?”
Even with an electric powertrain there is still some maintenance.
“We really don’t know if the total cost is lower... dealers will have to train techs and that will increase the labor rate (just as in the LNG, or liquified natural gas, days). And how about the work after the warranty is over (usually one year on the truck and up to three years on the powertrain)? Dealers will have to have chargers too, so that will increase their cost of operation resulting in a higher labor rate, too.”
Training technicians is another concern.
“You will also need a different technician to work on these trucks. Requiring specialized training. So far, we are being presented with OEM best case scenarios and their case ends at the end of the warranty. And based on the LNG, and DPF (diesel particulate filter) experiences, the OEM were quite off on their expectations. Trucking, local or long-haul, is very demanding on the equipment.”
Rodriguez-Long is not optimistic, at least not yet.
“So without subsidies, grants, and handouts from the taxpayers, the numbers unfortunately do not add up at this time.”
Nonetheless, the idea of quiet, emission-free trucks, especially in big cities, may easily be worth the problems of getting them online and affordable. I say, welcome EV trucks!
Share your thoughts on the transition of commercial trucking fleets to electric power in the comments below.