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Electric big rigs are going farther and charging faster

Jeff St. John

Sep 25, 2023

Heavy-duty battery-powered trucks running real cargo on U.S. roads are going hundreds of miles per charge — a good sign for cutting trucking emissions.

There’s only one way to know if electric trucks can really replace diesel-fueled trucks: load them up with cargo, put them on the road and collect the data to see how far they can go.

That’s exactly what 10 freight depots in North America have been doing over the past two weeks. And so far, the data indicates that the latest electric medium-duty and heavy-duty trucks are increasingly ready to handle a lot of North America’s freight-hauling needs.

The data comes from trucks participating in Run on Less – Electric Depot, a three-week-long test-drive event organized by the North American Council for Freight Efficiency, a nonprofit research group. Back in 2021, NACFE did its first electric truck test, and the findings showed that the vehicles available then were capable of handling the shorter-haul routes of about 100 miles or less that make up roughly half of all daily freight movement in the U.S.

This round of tests indicates that today’s trucks can go quite a bit further, Mike Roeth, NACFE’s executive director, said during a Monday livestream showcasing early results. In fact, the range and the recharging speeds of the 21 trucks being tracked have roughly doubled compared to the fleets NACFE tracked in 2021, he said.

This gives us real data, real-world experience to look into the future a bit — and I think the future of battery electric commercial trucks is bright,” he said.

Medium- and heavy-duty trucks make up less than 5 percent of vehicles on the road, but they account for about 7 percent of overall U.S. emissions. Heavy-duty trucks in particular account for around 70 percent of the emissions from medium- and heavy-duty vehicles, and an even greater share of harmful air pollution, the latter of which disproportionately affects lower-income areas and communities of color.

After decades of exploring options such as compressed natural gas and biofuels, experts have turned their focus to battery-electric vehicles as the most efficient and cost-effective means of cleaning up emissions from trucking. California set a goal earlier this year mandating that its fleet of 1.8 million commercial trucks convert to emissions-free vehicles over the next two decades, and a dozen other states have passed laws or are exploring similar goals.

But longer-haul routes remain a challenge for electric trucks, due to the ever-greater size and weight of batteries needed to move heavy cargoes long distances, and a lack of high-speed charging to keep them moving on tight schedules. Given the urgency of the climate crisis, time is of the essence in sorting out performance questions — and that’s something NACFE’s data-gathering project aims to help with. 

Electric trucking by the numbers

Roeth highlighted that this month’s positive findings don’t just apply to the medium-duty electric vans and box trucks from major manufacturers like Daimler, Ford, General Motors and International and startups like Motiv that are already running shorter daily routes from depots in California, New York and Vancouver, British Columbia.

In fact, what’s most noteworthy, he said, are the numbers coming in from heavy-duty trucks being tested in California, including BYD’s semitruck, Daimler Truck North America’s Freightliner eCascadia, Volvo’s VNR, and the much-watched upstart entrant, the Tesla Semi.

Roeth cautioned that the trucks participating in the test aren’t disclosing the precise weight of their cargo loads — a ​frustrating” gap in data, given that heavier loads decrease range.

But he did say that these trucks are all driving standard working routes that involve hauling heavy loads — trailers filled with produce and beverages or cargo containers from seaports and intermodal cargo centers.

And so far, they’ve clocked pretty impressive daily ranges. The Volvo and Daimler electric trucks, which are in production and available on the market, have gone up to 200 miles on a single charge, and between 250 and 320 miles when charged in between routes, as with this eCascadia operating out of the South El Monte, California depot of Schneider, a major logistics company.

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