The long-haul segment is trucking’s biggest hurdle for electrification

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There’s a big gap between diesel and all-electric, and that’s capability, lack of charging infrastructure, battery safety, battery lifecycle management and the list goes on.

Truckload Carriers Association Senior Vice President of Safety and Government Affairs David Heller believes that gap will become more apparent as more electric trucks hit the road this year.

“We can't even try out an electric vehicle in the long-haul trucking industry because it doesn't work,” Heller said. “I know of one carrier who has one and he can't use it long haul. He uses it for local pickup and deliveries because it just can't hold a charge for [long-haul].”

Heller believes more stories like this and others demonstrating the challenges of transitioning to zero-emission Class 8 will continue to emerge as the Biden Administration and massive investment firms like BlackRock continue to push companies to strive for increasingly difficult environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals.

“So 2023 is going to shake out in terms of real education and realistic viewpoints of what this looks like for the truckload segment of the industry because there's no [zero-emission] equipment out there that exists that can pacify the needs of this industry,” Heller said.

[Related: Tesla delivers 'most bad ass rig on the road' to Pepsi]

According to the California Energy Commission, which tracks sales of zero-emission medium- and heavy-duty commercial vehicles in the state, there were 113 Class 8 electric trucks working in California at the end of the second quarter last year, their most recent tally. All of these trucks were being used at the ports either as terminal tractors or for on-road drayage transport.

No electric trucks, according to the CEC, were being used in long-haul. That will have to change if the Biden Administration expects to meet its zero-emission goals.

In November, President Biden signed the Global Memorandum of Understanding (Global MOU) on Zero-Emission Medium-and Heavy-Duty Vehicles, an international agreement supporting a path to 100% new zero-emission medium- and heavy-duty truck and bus sales by 2040. The agreement seeks to make 30% of medium- and heavy-duty truck sales zero-emission by 2030.

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How the Biden Administration intends to achieve those ambitious goals, however, remains unclear, not only in terms of how zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) capability will be improved enough to replace current diesel trucks, but also how charging and hydrogen infrastructure will be put in place to support a massive commercial ZEV rollout.

While in the past Biden has talked of expanding the nation’s hydrogen infrastructure outside of California, during his State of the Union speech last week, the president did not mention hydrogen or zero-emission commercial trucks. Instead, Biden said the U.S. will “build 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations” and support families with EV tax credits.

The lack of clarity on how the Biden Administration intends to meet its commercial ZEV goals continues to concern TCA and its members, which operate more than 220,000 trucks throughout North America.

“It's not just equipment questions, it's total infrastructure and power grid questions as well,” Heller said. “As a nation we can't support it right now, so what does the realistic timeline look like when it actually can support it? When can we expect upgrades to the power grid? If every household in the nation turned to electric vehicles tonight, there would be massive blackouts across the country. We would not be able to sustain it. The grid could not hold up so that becomes the realistic nature of this type of environment.”

In November, Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced that his company’s long-awaited electric Semi completed a 500-mile trip while weighing in at 81,000 lbs. However, it’s unclear how much of that weight was owed to the truck’s massive battery pack, a concern that Heller said will bite into a carrier’s bottom line.

"If you have an 80,000-pound truck that all of a sudden now has a 10,000-pound battery, you're eliminating 10,000 pounds of freight that has to go on another truck,” Heller said.

Carriers operating in colder environments will also be up against range loss, Heller added. Battery lifecycle management is another issue operators will have to consider since a battery will eventually lose its ability to power a truck. From there, the battery can be utilized for a second-life application like energy storage for back-up power. When a battery is no longer viable for energy storage, it will eventually have to be disposed or recycled. Since the batteries are composed of toxic materials, this could prove to be a costly liability.

Battery flammability is another issue. OEMs have been moving to less volatile lithium-iron phosphate batteries, which lower flammability risks but also reduce range.

Heller said it’s those questions and more that need to be fully addressed to better prepare the industry to transition to zero emissions. The Biden Administration’s deadlines are also not realistic, he said, given the current state of commercial ZEV deployment.

“We want to be part of the conversation and involved in the conversation because history will show that trucking will do its part in protecting the environment, but we have to be involved and these dates and deadlines have to make real sense,” Heller said. “In some cases you're dealing with millions, if not billions of dollars of investment in equipment that you have to purchase in order to keep your freight rolling to abide by these deadlines not knowing whether or not a piece of equipment will be invented by then that will pacify the needs not just of the industry but the nation as a whole.”

[Related: ATA's Spear: Trucking can't meet zero emission regs on California's timeline]

Contents of this video

00:00 Strict zero-emissions goals and tight deadlines

01:54 Electric trucks and the long-haul segment

04:58 The problem is the power grid

06:38 Battery size, tonnage, and freight

08:29 Educating lawmakers and regulators on the issues

09:54 What will replace diesel?


Jason Cannon
This week's 10-44 is brought to you by Chevron Delo 600 ADF Ultra Low Ash Diesel Engine Oil. It's time to kick some ash.

Matt Cole
Trucking's largest segment is its biggest hurdle for electrification.

Jason Cannon
Hey, everybody. Welcome back the 10-44, a weekly webisode from the editors here at CCJ. I'm Jason Cannon and my co-host on the other side is Matt Cole.

Electrification and trucking is one of the most talked about issues across the industry. Lawmakers and regulators in California and the Environmental Protection Agency at the federal level are all leading the charge with strict zero emissions goals and tight deadlines.

Matt Cole
While the trucking industry, by and large, wants to achieve the goals being talked about, the timelines for meeting those goals need to be realistic. It's also worth noting how far the industry has come in the last 30 plus years on improving the diesel engine's emissions output. This week on the 10-44, we welcome in Dave Heller, senior Vice President of governmental Affairs for the Truckload Carriers Association, who talks about the trucking industry's push toward cleaner emissions.

Dave Heller
We've come a long way in such a short period of time. In fact, looking at the history, the number out there is 60 of today's trucks equate to the emissions of one truck back in 1988. That's in my lifetime. That's in your lifetime, too. I don't want to say I'm old, but I'm not that old to say that those are good numbers right there. It's certainly doing its fair share and saying that over the last 30 years, we've cut NOX emissions and particulate matter emissions by more than 98%.

These are real numbers and show that the industry is extremely friendly to the environment and good stewards of the environment. In saying, that we want to do our part in our history shows that we will do our part in terms of helping the environment. We're good stewards. We believe in clean air and want to continue down that road, but certainly these rules that are coming out of CARB and coming out of EPA are ones that certainly, we need to be concerned about.

Jason Cannon
Dave says that while electric trucks are already working in some applications in the industry, the technology is just not quite there for the long haul segment, which makes up most of the industry.

Dave Heller
They're certainly deploying these types of vehicles in certain applications, none of which is long haul trucking. I think it's fair to point out. In fact, we should point out that there is not a truck that exists right now that can actually pacify the needs of the long haul trucking sector in this nation, and that's the largest sector of trucking there is across the country.

It's great and it's fantastic political rhetoric to sit there and say, "Oh, we're going to put zero emission vehicles out in the trucking industry," but we don't have a vehicle that works. We don't have a vehicle we can use to do that. Looking at a mandate based on years and facing an equipment horizon that doesn't have a vehicle that works for our industry is concerning to say the very least, especially when there needs to be tremendous amount of research and development that goes into pacifying this type of development or this type of vehicle. As I said, we don't have a problem supporting the environment. In fact, we want to support the environment, but we need to do so in a strategic way so that we actually have vehicles that can support the nation's freight bill.

It goes without saying, the reason trucking is so prevalent in terms of supporting our nation's economy is because we're the most flexible form of freight delivery in the nation. If we don't have a vehicle that can support that model, then obviously we have a lot of work to do. Now we want to do our part and we want to take place in the studies and we want to be able to partake in the testing of this equipment because there's a tremendous amount of dollars that go into investing this equipment, and if you invest these dollars in the equipment doesn't work, it doesn't make much sense to move forward with it.

Matt Cole
In addition to not having the battery technology in place yet to support long haul trucking, Dave says the problems with electrification go beyond trucking. Those issues will take more time than what some regulators want to come to fruition. We'll hear more on that after a word from 10-44 sponsor, Chevron Lubricants.

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Dave Heller
How much time are we talking? That becomes the biggest question. If you're talking five years, no. It's not just trucking that has the problem per se, it's the power grid. You're looking at electric output to support an industry that just isn't there. We need tremendous updates in the power grid to support this industry and a changeover. If we could snap our fingers overnight and all of a sudden you have an electric truck that's available to support the long haul trucking industry and it basically switched every diesel power engine to electric power engine, what would lag far behind would be the power grid and the ability to charge these vehicles. We just don't have enough power or generate enough power across the country with its power grid to support the industry. It's not there. It's not feasible. There are tremendous amounts of changes that need to go into the power grid, the development of charging stations to say nothing of the effect of or the fact that we have to develop equipment that will sustain 600 miles in a charge or 700 miles in a charge, what the industry is using to deliver freight.

We're not there yet. I don't know what that timeframe looks like. I do know our industry is more than willing to partake in testing of such equipment and the development of such equipment. Like I said, we need to be partners in this and we need to be strategic and sensible thinkers in the development of this equipment to say nothing of the power grid, to get these things developed so that we can move the ball on zero emission vehicles. There's no doubt about it. That's the way we're going and no doubt about that, our industry wants to be good stewards of the environment. We don't want to pollute the environment. Our history shows that we won't pollute the environment. We just want to make sure that we have the right equipment to support freight delivery in this nation.

Jason Cannon
Now, not only is range an issue for long haul trucking, so is the weight of the batteries.

Dave Heller
If you look at the SHIP IT bill that just came out, there was an exemption out there for battery weight for extra size included in that thing. Then the question becomes without an exemption or without a reduction in the weight of the battery, that's going to creep into freight that goes into the trailer. At this point in time, we're 80,000 pounds. There's no way around that. That's the way you look at it. That's your standard 53-foot trailer weighed out at 80,000 pounds. We're not advocating for additional weight, nor should we be advocating for additional weight.

At this point in time, you have to look at where's that subtract? The mathematician's going to tell you, "Okay, if the battery weighs 10,000 pounds, you're losing 10,000 pounds of freight," which then would essentially put more trucks on the road. There's a whole mathematical equation that you have to look at when it comes to that. Again, this is today's battery. What does tomorrow's battery look like? Certainly you're imagining, and this is me just being the not scientist whatsoever, but being the general how things have transitioned in the past, battery size will shrink. Energy output will remain the same, but battery size will shrink, so you have to make caveats for that as we go along, which is again, part of this whole experimental and test out phase and what this looks like.

We want to partake in it, we want to be players in that, and we want to certainly volunteer our time and efforts to make sure we have the right pieces of equipment with the right battery size so that we can continue down the road and look at what that size actually is or that size will be for some time, especially considering the investments in equipment that carriers would indeed have to make based on the rule right now. Obviously, there's some education and those rules could be changing. In saying that, we just have to be in the game to talk about how battery size on engine freight all work in that same equation.

Matt Cole
TCA isn't the only trucking organization trying to warn lawmakers about the problems trucking and the country faced with a looming transition to zero emission vehicles. ATA's Chris Spear offered similar insights as Dave at a recent House transportation infrastructure committee meeting. Dave says this is an issue that the two groups will be working together on to educate lawmakers and regulators.

Dave Heller
This is not rocket science. In order for A to happen, we need this and we need this and these things don't exist yet. I think this year's going to play out to be a lot of congressional education, if you will, by industry, by people like myself and ATA. You're right, we will be working in unison on this one. This is one of those things that it is beneficial to the industry to work in unison on it. I think we're all dealing with the same problems when it comes to looking at this equipment, so it's one of the issues is we have to tell our story. We have to educate our members of Congress and we have to do so in a way that they understand it.

Making sure that this becomes a simple story to tell. It's not get into the details or the nitty-gritty, but make sure everybody can understand the message that we're delivering. I think that's going to be how 2023 shakes out. It's going to be a realistic viewpoint of what the landscape actually is. It's going to be a long year with a lot of meetings. I know my schedule is already starting to fill up in terms of these meetings. I imagine ATA's is as well, so no stone will be unturned by industry.

Jason Cannon
Now, at the end of the day, it's apparent that diesel will eventually, mostly or totally be replaced by some sort of alternative power source. What that ends up being, however, is ultimately the big question.

Dave Heller
The end game, I can tell you this. When you're looking at the end game and you have to look at how these trucks are going to be fueled or what sort of energy source they're going to be relied on to do it, it has to be done so that this nation can be sustained in and the fleets can be done so in a manner that they can effectively deliver freight. Whether that's diesel, whether that is electricity, whether that's hydrogen or you name it, the type of fuel that is, it has to be done so in a way that we can effectively deliver freight.

I know there's pockets out there that are certainly going that route and pushing those types of vehicles, and that's fantastic. There's other caveats to that as well. It's one of those right now, if you look at the Highway Trust Fund that supports our nation's roads and bridges. That's specifically fueled by the fuel tax that's paid at the pump. If you're filling with electricity or you're filling with hydrogen or whatever. If you can measure it, you can tax it so that fuel tax can be replaced with an additional tax mechanism out there so that our roads and bridges can be fully sustained so that we don't get ourselves in a position that we're in now where we have to dedicate additional funds to help rebuild these programs. We need certainly a self-sustaining funding mechanism that will support the Highway Trust Fund and that will shake out once one of these energy sources becomes the reliable path moving forward. That's, I think, one of the situations we clearly have to pay attention.

Jason Cannon
That's it for this week's 10-44. You can read more on, and as always, you can find the 10-44 each week on CCJs YouTube channel. If you've got questions, comments, criticisms or feedback, hit us up at [email protected] or give us a call at 404-491-1380. Until next week, everybody stay safe.