Gas2 Week in Review, February 18: The State of Electric Trucking — Tesla and Its Competitors

Electric trucking was big news as 2017 ended. Chanje, a California-based commercial EV and energy solutions company, committed to introducing a commercial all-electric MD vehicle in Q4 ’17, available at mass scale in the U.S. These vans, designed from the ground up as a purpose-built, long-life EV truck, already had volume orders at the close of 2017.  Motiv Power Systems announced that Sacramento’s first all-electric automated left-side loader garbage truck, the Electric Refuse Vehicle (ERV) built on a Crane Carrier chassis, would be operable in 2018 and would be one of only two all-electric refuse trucks in operation within North America. Cummins, Inc. launched the Urban Hauler EV, a fully electric Class 7 daycab tractor demonstration prototype as a model for electric powertrains for 2019 city transit buses.

But has there been sustained enthusiasm for electric trucking now that we’re fully into 2018? In this edition of the “Gas2 Week in Review,” we’ll look at the recent stories about electric trucking, with the goal to figure how quickly– and if– short- and long-haul transport will be moving toward an all-electric future.

Photo courtesy Cummins, Inc.

We’ve all heard that there will be a significant shift towards electric trucking in the next few years. But is the allure of electric trucking actually translating onto US roads? If 2017 California data about electric vehicles as a whole and pickup trucks in particular has instructive value, it is that demand for vehicles with more space and utility helped pickups, SUVs, crossovers, and minivans capture more than half of the market. “Electric vehicles are popular out here, especially in the cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles,” said Jessica Caldwell, senior analyst at Edmunds.com. “But the rest of California is rural, and, outside the cities, pickups are everywhere.”

It can be said that pickups are status identity symbols that are accessible chiefly to a more affluent, suburban white male clientele who are affect a heartland or frontier culture — a type of manifest destiny, a view of the environment as something to be conquered. How can this semiotic interpretation of the truck as self-reliance, physical aggression, and ties to US American political conservatism translate into all-electric trucking?

A shift in consciousness is taking place across the world as various social and economic structures prompt us to think about the ways that each of us can contribute to our planet’s health.  Heavy duty trucks, a category that includes semis, are the second biggest contributor to transportation-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the US. Are more trucking insiders awakening to their contributions to GHG emissions , like Mike Roeth, director of the North American Council for Freight Efficiency? Roth says, “I see those old trucks hauling down the highway, belching black smoke—it’s not real pleasant.”

trucking

Will the argument that electric trucks are environmentally friendly stick with the trucking industry, though? Some of the biggest factors to consider with all-electric trucks are weight and range. Class 8 trucks in the US have to operate under the 80,000-pound limit mandated by law, and electric semis would require huge battery packs for extended journeys. While it seems that all-electric trucking could fall nicely into a 100-mile range for the medium-duty urban delivery market, heavy-duty trucks like electric semis have a good deal of R&D ahead before they can be competitive with diesels. Electrification adds around $150,000 to the cost of a heavy-duty vehicle, or more than double the cost of some diesel tractor-trailers, and electric semi trucks also have the added layer of long charging times and little highway charging infrastructure.

Tesla Electric Trucking News

Perhaps we should look at reactions to the Tesla Semi at a time in which 70% of U.S. consumer goods are shipped by truck. Now that the initial Tesla Semi fervor has died down, the focus on this all-electric transportation vehicle has moved to its design. With a centrally located driving position that may improve visibility and provide enhanced safety (the driver sits farther away from side panels and windshield A-pillars), the Tesla Semi’s aerodynamics seem to be its most talked-about feature. According to Trucks.com, positioning the driver in the center of the tractor enables the Tesla to sport a narrow nose that flares out to direct air down the sides of the trailer with minimal interruption.

But can Tesla make good on its promises about the Semi? During the Q4 2017 investors conference call, Tesla CEO Elon Musk predicted the company would be delivering 100,000 electric heavy-duty trucks annually by 2022. “If you take four years, I think, 100,000 units a year is a reasonable expectation. Maybe more, but that’s the right — roughly the right number,” Musk said.

Tesla Semi via Tesla

Not everyone was convinced. “Get real! That would be almost half of the total U.S. Class 8 sales in a good year. It is preposterous,” said Antti Lindstrom, a truck industry analyst with IHS Markit. “Anything could happen in enough time, say 2030 or 2040, but not in just four years.”

The Tesla Semi is anticipated to list at a base price of $150,000 for a truck with a 300-mile range per battery charge and $180,000 for the 500-mile range truck with a bigger battery. Because Tesla’s proprietary battery packs are more energy dense than others and may be able to provide more range at less weigh, some companies are planning how they will charge those trucks once they arrive. In particular, Anheuser Busch and United Parcel Service say they are working closely with Tesla to design charging equipment that will be installed at their transportation hubs.

Tesla’s All-Electric Trucking Competitors

Navistar, Volkswagen, Volvo, Proterra, and other vehicle manufacturers are all developing electric heavy-duty trucks that will compete with Tesla. Utah-based startup Nikola Motor has taken thousands of advance orders for a Class 8 hydrogen fuel-cell electric semi with up to 1,200 miles of range with production date set for 2021. Daimler has introduced an electric truckingheavy truck prototype, called the E-Fuso, and Toyota is testing a Class 8 fuel-cell electric drayage truck. This custom-built prototype will haul imported Toyota parts from the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to warehousing and distribution operations in Southern California. Chinese-backed BYD is building electric buses and Class 6 through Class 8 electric trucks. Kenworth is developing a Class 8 hydrogen fuel-cell electric truck prototype it plans to launch in early 2019.

Dakota Semler, the founder and CEO of Thor Trucks, was quoted at Stifel Financial Corp.’s annual Transportation and Logistics Conference that the Tesla Semi’s purported “500 mile range, even with strict hours-of-service regulations is not, realistically, longhaul. We don’t see a use case for longhaul electric trucks. ” Thor, a start-up that aims to beat Tesla to market, plans to partner with existing auto manufacturers to build its trucks. It has its own battery technology, but, otherwise, its trucks will use off-the-shelf components and have features that feel familiar to drivers and fleet managers. Thor has no plans for autonomous driving.

Final Thoughts

Electric trucks are supposed to offer a much lower total-cost-of-ownership than diesel trucks, even though they have a higher upfront cost. Of course, to be viable, electric trucks need batteries with a life cycle of 300,000+ miles. Yes, battery technology has now entered a state of economic stability.  The next steps are to figure how to extend their capacity so that more members of the trucking industry can join the all-electric ranks with confidence.

Photo by raymondclarkeimages on Foter.com / CC BY-NC

 

Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn grew up in Stafford Springs, CT, home of the half-mile tar racetrack. She's an avid Formula One fan (this year's trip to the Monza race was memorable). With a Ph.D. from URI, she draws upon digital media literacy and learning to spread the word about sustainability issues. Please follow me on Twitter and Facebook and Google+