Broad electric truck adoption limited by cost, infrastructure

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 1,757 views 

Lowell-based carrier J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. started to test the Freightliner eCascadia electric truck in 2020. Series production of the class 8 truck, the largest truck class, is expected to start this year.

Many carriers have already experienced the benefits of electric trucks, but some challenges, including their high upfront cost and the lack of fast-charging stations, have limited their use to fleets with West Coast operations.

According to a recent Transport Topics report, electric trucks allow for zero tailpipe emissions, a quieter, cooler and more comfortable cab, easier driving, less maintenance and better reliability compared to diesel-fueled trucks. Still, fleets that use electric trucks have noted their challenges.

Some of the issues to their widespread use include high acquisition costs, complex infrastructure requirements and financial questions related to resale value of first-generation electric trucks.

Currently, about 1,000 electric trucks are operating in the United States, and the about same number are on order, according to Calstart, a nonprofit industry consortium promoting zero-emission commercial vehicle use. This number will increase significantly as manufacturers release electric pickups and vans that are expected to be popular with utility fleets and delivery services.

The heavy-duty electric truck segment faces more challenges than the lighter truck segment as the heavier ones are more expensive, have the most challenging duty cycles and have the most expensive charging infrastructure.

Penske Truck Leasing has 87 class 3-8 electric trucks in its fleet and is one of the largest electric truck users. Class 8 is the largest truck class.

“We’ve learned that the vehicles will perform under different duty-cycles, under different mileage bands within their range, and under the different topographies with different rates and payloads,” said Paul Rosa, senior vice president of procurement and fleet planning at Penske Truck Leasing.

Rosa noted some of the challenges include how quickly the vehicles and technology are changing. He pointed to the difficulty in determining the resale value of existing electric trucks in three years, an important factor for purchasing or leasing the vehicles. Their values are difficult to determine as short-term technology improvements are likely to increase their range along with other characteristics that a current model would compete for in the resale market. Also, the vehicles are too new to have a reliability track record.

“It’s been a challenge with the restrictions of which customers can operate them because of range, payload and other specification limitations,” he said.

For-hire carrier NFI has a fleet of 10 prototype Freightliner eCascadias with a combined 500,000 miles of operation and plans to add four Volvo VNR Electrics to its fleet. NFI also has 30 eCasacadias and 30 VNR Electrics on order.

Bill Bliem, senior vice president of fleet services for NFI, said the carrier is electrifying its fleet of 60 drayage trucks used for 120- to 170-mile round trips from Southern California ports to inland distribution centers. The carrier and its drivers like how the trucks operate, but some of the barriers to their increased use include greater flexibility.

“Every fleet is different, and no one seems to understand this,” Bliem said. “And every truck within a fleet is different depending on weight and how many miles it must go.”

NFI wants electric trucks to have more range between charges even if they had more battery packs, cutting into cargo space and increasing the truck’s weight. The increased range would allow NFI to complete two port trips between charges.

“I would gladly pay for more battery,” Bliem said.

NFI has charging stations at its hubs, he said, but not all carriers or drivers have this advantage. The report shows that California wants the 10s of thousands of trucks operating at Los Angeles and Long Beach ports to be electric.

“About 90% of those trucks are owner-operators operating as independent contractors,” Bliem said. “Will they be able to invest even $200,000 into an electric truck?”

If they could, the infrastructure in which to charge one is lacking. And, the time to charge could cause delays and impact profits. Charging stations can be built, but they will need to be rated at 1,250 volts and 3,000 amps, which are being developed by the CharIN industry task force.

“While not as fast as diesel, somebody can fill up in about 20 minutes and hit the road,” Bliem said. “Anything less is an illusion. Nobody is going to park at a public charging site for two hours with a driver sitting there doing nothing.”

Rosa added that installing charging infrastructure for trucks could take up to two years with existing supply chain issues and shortages.

He also noted the cost of electric trucks compared to diesel-fueled ones. Without incentives and subsidies, he said a class 8 electric truck is nearly three times that of a comparable diesel truck.

“Add in the infrastructure challenges, the real estate challenges that go with that, and you’re looking at $450,000 without subsidies,” Bliem said. “That’s a really hard total-cost-of-operation case.”

A comparable diesel truck sells for $125,000 to $150,000 and doesn’t require an infrastructure investment, the report shows.

Most investments into electric trucks have taken place in California, where generous incentives and subsidies are offered. According to Calstart, about 70% of electric trucks are operating in California.

In 2017, Lowell-based carrier J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. reserved 40 Tesla Semi electric trucks to be used in the carrier’s intermodal and dedicated segments to support operations on the West Coast. In 2020, the carrier completed its first delivery with a class 8 electric truck. By 2035, the company plans to convert at least 25% of its day cab and straight truck fleet to an alternative power fuel source.

Less-than-truckload carrier XPO Logistics is testing several Freightliner electric trucks at its Hayward, Calif., service center. It’s using Lightning Electric class 4 commercial box trucks to deliver goods in New York. In a statement, XPO explained the industry will be limited to charging electric trucks at a fleet’s hub until the infrastructure is in place. Meanwhile, the vehicles will be best for “urban or regional operations,” according to XPO, which also cited their range issues and higher cost.

According to its most recent Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance report, Fort Smith-based ArcBest, the parent company of less-than-truckload carrier ABF Freight, noted plans to pursue initial testing of a small number of electric class 6 trucks, yard tractors and forklifts as one of its efforts toward environmental sustainability.

According to the Transport Topics report, the largest truck manufacturers in North America and electric vehicle companies such as BYD are working to scale their electric truck businesses.

Daimler Trucks North America has 40 prototype battery-electric Freightliner eCascadias and eM2 box trucks operating under test conditions with about 50 customers. In 2020, J.B. Hunt started to test the eCascadia. The truck manufacturer plans to launch series production of the class 8 truck in 2022, with eM2 production expected to begin in 2023.

In 2021, Volvo started to produce its VNR Electric and has about 150 trucks in operation for customers, mostly in California.

“We just delivered five units to our customer Manhattan Beer Distributors in the Bronx, N.Y., and will deliver two units to our customer Fleetmaster in Texas early in the first quarter,” said Brett Pope, director of electric vehicles at Volvo Trucks North America.

Meanwhile, the market for electric pickups and cargo vans has started to develop. Ford has 160,000 reservations for the electric F-150 pickup, and Rivian has an order for 100,000 delivery vans from e-commerce giant Amazon.

In December, electric vehicle startup Canoo Inc. announced shifting production from Europe to the United States and that it will begin manufacturing at its advanced industrialization facility, which is planned for Bentonville. In November, the company announced it would relocate its corporate headquarters to Bentonville and noted establishing the advanced industrialization and low-volume production facility for small package delivery vehicles. According to its website, the company is accepting orders of its lifestyle vehicle, delivery vehicle and pickup. Starting price is $34,750 for the lifestyle vehicle.

Canoo plans to produce between 3,000 and 6,000 units in 2022 and between 14,000 and 17,000 units in 2023. By late 2023, the company is expected to open its Pryor, Okla., factory, and production is expected to rise to between 40,000 and 50,000 units in 2024 and 70,000 to 80,000 units in 2025.