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I usually start a blog with an idea in mind and find research that supports that storyline. Perhaps it’s because my brain includes reinforcing facts while ignoring those that mismatch my mental model. Or, if you’re inclined to be generous, maybe it comes from a solid understanding of the industry, so I usually pick topics that agree with the research. In either case, very rarely does my research completely flip my perspective on a subject. I’m happy to say that my opinion on EV semis is one of those cases.
I started this blog being distinctly negative on the viability of EV trucks. To be clear, I’m a huge fan of EV light duty (passenger) trucks, much to the chagrin of my local Ford dealership. But I’m talking about electrifying class 8 trucks for heavy-duty long-distance hauling – I just didn’t think it was practical. But I’ve come around to thinking that EV semi-trucks are not only going to be successful, but are likely to be the future of long-haul transportation.
I’ll start this story with the negative narrative on EV semis – and there’s a lot of it. Because that’s where my initial impressions came from, it’s good to get them out of the way first.
Starting off on the wrong foot
Why would I think that EV rigs would be a failure? Well for starters, the implosion of Nikola Motors. Admittedly, this was a single instance of a fraudulent CEO (who also unfairly besmirched hydrogen fuel cells with his implausible claims). However, debunking some of his fantastical – and indeed, indictable – claims gave a lot of people pause about the use of EVs in trucking.
Then there is Tesla’s semi, first announced in 2017 with a production date of 2019. Which slipped to 2020. Then to 2021. And now 2022. While rational explanations have been offered for each delay, they don’t instill confidence that it’s possible to replicate the Tesla magic in long-haul trucking.
Towing tanks mileage
Then there’s the practicalities of towing. Everyone – especially those with RVs, trailers, or boats – knows that fuel economy is decimated by towing. My personal experience in owning a F-150 is that my mileage is about halved when I tow, even though my RV is a little guy (and I mean that literally) that weighs at most 3,500 pounds fully loaded. Although both the Rivian R1T and the Ford Lightning have been duking it out in my mind for my next vehicle purchase, these fantasies are tempered by this reality of how I need to use an EV truck. It’s got to be able to tow while travelling decent distances. As a result, until more results come out that show the practicality of EV trucks in towing applications, I’ve temporarily landed on a F-150 hybrid in the meantime.
Here’s at least one data point that agrees with me. This video put EV towing to the test using a Rivian R1T (4-motor, 135KWh battery) and, somewhat coincidentally, a Ford F-150 PowerBoost hybrid. A vehicle I have versus a vehicle I want. Although the goal of the test was to determine relative costs for gasoline vs EV in towing applications, I was interested more in the impact of towing on range. The Rivian’s non-towing range at 85% charge started at 293 miles. After a 57-mile highway loop towing a 7,400-pound trailer (the trailer containing a Tesla for a bit of delicious irony), they determined that the Rivian used 1.11 kWh/mile, for a total range of 103 miles (again on an 85% charge). Which is about one-third the range that you’d get without a load. While that’s similar to the impact that towing has on my hybrid, the range and charge/recharge time make a huge difference to whether this is a workable solution.
Translating that impact into the loads that big rigs carry – 80,000 pounds maximum – requires tremendous battery capacities and lengthy recharge times.
Smaller than expected benefit
A major part of the EV draw comes from positive environmental benefits and the ability to reduce climate change impacts. Yet, transportation is 29% of the total greenhouse gas emissions, and trucking is only 24% of that – so big rigs comprise just 7% of the total emissions. That means that if overnight every semi was converted to an EV, we’d barely make a dent in greenhouse gas emissions. Of course, every little bit counts, but this wouldn’t seem to be a significant enough benefit to drive immediate action.
Fleet customers and EVs
Finally, there’s the fleet industry itself. While Third Law focuses on automotive technology some of our customers serve the fleet market. And in our experience, most of that market does not seem to be terribly interested or engaged in electrification. This makes sense, given that fleets tend to be technology followers rather than leaders because their assets are longer-lived and significantly more expensive. They can’t jump on every bandwagon until technology is tried and true – and cheap.
Chinese maker BYD is the world’s largest manufacturer of electric vehicles and they’ve invested in EV semis in a big way.
Turning the corner
So, after all that negative conditioning about electric trucking, why the change in heart? Because as I continued my research, I started also encountering companies that are making it work. I saw that it not only seems possible to create an electric semi that will do the job it needs to do, but there’s also a groundswell of companies who are interested in buying them. And there are changes afoot that indicate that the industry is at the beginning of a big change.
It seems appropriate to start with the company I dissed in the beginning of this piece. I hadn’t been following Nikola Motor’s progress since the ouster of Trevor Milton and GM pulling out their investments. However, the company survived those events. They paid their lumps with the Securities and Exchange Commission, put some competent people in place and tried to keep out of the spotlight. They are still pursing both hydrogen fuel cell and electric semis, and while their survival as a company is far from certain, they have two great things going for them.
Firstly, they have kept plugging away at building production electric rigs throughout the controversy. They have started to deliver their first BEV trucks for customer trials with mileage in real-world applications at 204 miles per charge. Given that drivers will likely have to take breaks every 3-4 hours minimum anyway, I think 200 miles per charge is above the threshold for market viability.
Secondly, they have a lot of potential customers. Anheuser-Busch, Heniff Transportation, USA Truck, Saia LTL Freight, Covenant Logistics, Total Transportation Services, Hamburg Port Authority, and Tri-Eagle Sales have a total of 375 Tre BEV trucks on order. This is a first wave, and most of these companies have already received a few initial models, but Nikola expects to be delivering 300-500 production BEV trucks this year. Despite what I would have thought as little industry interest, a number of fleet market innovators are willing to dip their toe into the EV game.
BYD is building your dreams
Although I can hear the Tesla fan club already burning in denial, Chinese maker BYD is in fact, the world’s largest manufacturer of electric vehicles. And they have invested in EV semis in a big way. In fact, just this week, they’ve announced they’re discontinuing all ICE vehicles to focus exclusively on BEV models. Their 8TT truck gets a working range of 200 miles per charge and are already on sale, with over 200 operating in the US. However, what’s a bit more interesting is their worldwide volume. They claim to have over 10,000 BEV trucks in service around the globe, which definitely makes them a market leader in this space with a tremendous vote of confidence in their technology by worldwide customers.
Daimler: truck leader with emission free targets
Daimler Trucks (which includes Mercedes-Benz, FUSO, Freightliner, and Western Star) is a dominant player in the trucking market, and they’re not sitting still either. One of their board members stated that they are targeting at least 50% emission-free vehicles by 2030. While that mirrors many EV-forward commitments made by passenger vehicle OEMs, that’s a pretty big leap for a fleet market leader. And they’ve already announced two models of BEV trucks : the heavy-duty eCascadia with 250 mile range, and a medium duty eM2 with 230 mile range.
Volvo Trucks keeping pace
Volvo is another major market player who won’t be left out of the EV truck game. Similar to Daimler, they are also committing to 50% zero emission trucks by 2030. Their electric semi, the Volvo VNR, had 100 pre-orders at launch. While the expected range of 150 miles per charge is less than many of the competitors we’ve mentioned, there are still many urban and last-mile delivery uses where the VNR would be a perfect fit. But almost as if to answer those naysayers, Volvo announced upgrades this year that bring the VNR’s range over that of the competition to a market-leading 275 miles per charge.
Emission targets on trucks
Finally, both regulatory and corporate spaces are focused on cleaning up trucking as well. The International Council on Clean Transportation has a lot of good data on efforts to curb emission from heavy-duty trucks. California Advanced Clean Trucks (ACT) is one example (adopted by five other states) on the policy side that promises increasingly higher zero emission targets for fleet sales starting in 2024. Europe has enacted legislation of a similar nature, cutting emissions and increasing incentives for electric transport trucks starting in 2025. Here at home, Canada is doing the same, and so are other countries with critical transportation markets like China, Japan, India, and Brazil.
Then there’s the corporate side. Industry logistics leaders with massive fleets are making significant commitments to cut their fleet emissions too, such as Amazon, FedEx, and DHL. Pepsi will be net-zero emission by 2040 and the transportation side of their business has pre-ordered 100 Tesla Semis to kick off that effort. Other industry giants like Walmart, Ikea, and Unilever are transforming their fleets similarly. There is a lot of industry appetite to greenify corporate trucking.
BEV: trucking’s future
The electric rig isn’t a failed dream or an unattainable goal. With many viable BEV semis already here and more coming to market, major investment by leading truck OEMs, new government policies in place, and widespread adoption of electric trucks by large corporations, the electric semi seems an inevitability. I’m so glad to be proven wrong.