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What’s the Future of Electric Vehicles in Trucking?

Last Updated: July 2, 2019

Did you know that in 2015 alone, the U.S. trucking industry consumed a staggering amount of oil – 54 billion gallons to be exact? It’s a startling figure that elicits even more pause when you stop to think that, according to a study conducted by the American Transportation Research Institute and the University of Michigan Transportation Institute, experts estimate that freight load volumes will increase by a whopping 17-percent in the next decade. When you consider that the average fleet surveyed in the study hauls 2.1 million pounds of cargo over 10 million miles annually, the number becomes even more troublesome.

Future of Electric Vehicles in Trucking

For any fleet manager, the above can be a dizzying display that spells out one thing: fleets these days use too much fuel. Fuel accounts for roughly 24-percent of operating costs, a factor that can easily hurt a bottom line, especially in times of fuel crises. Additionally, burning this amount of fuel can have catastrophic effects on the environment. While more effort is being devoted to building more aerodynamic trailers, which can help to reduce fuel consumption, these efforts aren’t enough to mitigate the rising cost of fuel or the potential environmental damage – especially when regulations are tightening. As a result, the most forward-thinking leaders are eager to explore electric vehicle alternatives.

While electric and hybrid passenger and small commercial vehicles have been on the market for years, electric trucking is still very much an emerging trend that is being dictated by technological advancements, monetary investments, and safety regulations. Let’s take a look at what the future of electric vehicles in trucking looks like today:

The Future is Here – But the Investment Isn’t Electric Vehicles in Trucking

This past September, Patrick McGee of the Financial Times visited a truck and bus show, aiming to gain an understanding of why electric trucking hasn’t quite taken off in the same way that it has for passenger vehicles. Although the reporter clearly sees the desire on the part of truck manufacturers to sell electric vehicles, it is also clear that customers aren’t presently investing enough in the technology.

Martin Daum, chief executive of Daimler Trucks and Busses, explains why. “The customer is not prepared [to pay more], that’s the biggest problem,” he said. “They have to make money with their trucks. If you have a truck that costs €100,000 and another that costs €150,000 but does the same job, which are you going to buy?”

So, even though fleet customers may be interested in investing in the technology, in theory, most feel that they cannot ride out the payoff. That being said, there seems to be a decent amount of hope when it comes to lowering the price point. According to experts, the prices of the electric batteries are on a slow decline, meaning that electric vehicles should cost the same or less as combustion engine vehicles by 2025.

What the First Generation of Electric Trucks Looks Like

At this point in time, the industry is experiencing its first viable wave of electric trucks. While the innovations have been successful ones, Transportation Topics is quick to point out that fully-electric trucks are still very much in their infancy and, for many fleets, they simply can’t yet compete with the traditional combustion engine-based options. This is because many of the zero-emissions trucks available today are only realistic for fleets operating in short-haul applications, such as urban pick-up and delivery.

According to the publication, once batteries improve, the next logical step will be to implement them in regional routes, followed by long-haul routes. Because of these handicaps, the best to invest in, currently, are hybrid options that give the operator and the fleet more breathing room and flexibility.

Right now, a number of the top trucking manufacturers are in the process of building, what they say will be, electric vehicles made for more flexible applications. For instance, Volvo Trucks announced last year that it would be beginning to deploy all-electric trucks in California, starting in 2020. This is an important step in Volvo’s long-term initiative which calls for a future that involves “zero-emission trucking.”

Businesses Adopting Electric Fleets

Back in 2017, Wal-Mart made headlines when it announced that it had pre-ordered 15 of Tesla’s new electric tractor trailers to add to its massive fleet. At the time, experts estimated that the move could end up saving Wal-Mart $25,000 per year for each semi-truck.

Soon after, other influential companies, such as Ryder and UPS, announced that they, too, would be adding electric vehicles to their fleets. UPS took it one step further by investing in the startup, Thor Trucks, to custom-make a fleet of delivery trucks. According to the company, the class 6 trucks were to be equipped with battery ranges of 100 miles.

Generally speaking, the most impactful orders for electric trucks are coming straight from the richest companies in the world. As mentioned, it seems that we may be another 5 years or so away until the price point drops to a level in which other companies can comfortably invest. That said, the companies that are implementing these technologies set industry trends, meaning that if the electric fleets help them become more profitable, smaller fish are likely to follow in their footsteps. With that sort of investment and an increased level of customer confidence, electric truck makers will be free to innovate even further.

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