It would be fair to say, in 2023, that battery-electric Class 8 trucks haven’t exactly taken the market by storm. The industry was abuzz over electric trucks a decade ago. Many thought, back then, we’d have significantly more electric trucks on the road by now. That hasn’t proven true for the heavy Class 8 fleet, especially on the long-haul side.
However, there’s lots of activity today in the light and medium space.
We are seeing huge uptake in last-mile and local delivery applications because of the minimum range requirements and the lack of concern over excess chassis weight. These Class 4-5 vehicles are ideally suited for electrification. They typically run less than 100 miles a day and return to base at the end of the shift for overnight charging.
They can take advantage of a smaller battery pack, often something between 100 and 150 kwh. They can also use a lighter-duty Level 2 charger, something in the 80-amp range. This helps keep the installation cost down and allows fleets to charge based on off-peak rates.
Class 5-6 vehicles, such as the package delivery cars used by UPS and others, use larger battery packs and often have capabilities for AC or DC fast charging. Routes are often longer, and payloads are higher, but they can still easily manage a full day’s work on a single overnight charge.
DC fast charging offers a full charge in about three hours. That’s a more costly charging system to install and requires additional energy input from the electric utility company, but it offers improved utilization.
Moving up into the Class 6-7 markets, these trucks have already proven themselves in real-world applications and are gaining market acceptance day by day. With gross vehicle weight ratings up to 33,000 pounds, serving the pickup-and-delivery segments, regional delivery, food service, etc., with ranges up to 200-250 miles, these trucks are more complex and can have more complex charging needs.
Most vehicle offerings from an array of OEMs are already in series production and can literally be bought off the lot.
“Light- and medium-duty are the ideal applications for adoption right now,” says Lydia Vieth, a research analyst in electrification and autonomy at ACT Research. “You already have the advantage of regenerative braking charging opportunities, and if you're doing return to base, you’re not going to need expensive charging infrastructure so won’t need to do a ton of site upgrades. Our analysis already shows there’s a positive financial case for switching from diesel to electric.”
The Case for Class 8 Battery-Electric Trucks Remains Murky
While the case for electrifying light- and medium-duty trucks is clear, Class 8 trucks quickly run up against the weight and range problem.
They’ve been successfully deployed in many short- and middle-distance applications, but the long-haul irregular-route model is still years off for battery-electric.
Mike Roeth, executive director of the North American Council for Freight Efficiency, points to local food and beverage delivery as one of the most likely applications for Class 8 electrification. These trucks haul heavy but diminishing loads over short distances, with a significant portion of the work shift spent sitting still while unloading.
Roeth suggests drayage and local route delivery are good applications for battery electric Class 8s because the routes can often be kept under 150 miles.
The best example of regional haul would be less-than-truckload, he says, where the trucks run predictable routes and always return to base.
“It comes down to a question of range, weight, and cost. If you're going 100, 300, or 500 miles, you need to spec the battery pack to get the job done.”
The opportunity for recharging with regenerative braking on over-the-road runs between terminals is minimal, but opportunity charging at the turn-around point is possible.
“Most of the discussions have been on range per battery charge, but what if you can get a charge in the middle? That changes everything,” Roeth says. “We’re finally moving from one charge per shift to thinking about opportunity charging somewhere in the middle.”
For example, one of the fleets participating in NACFE’s Run on Less Electric Depot event this year, Performance Team, based in Commerce, California, uses trucks with different battery capacities. Dean Magistrale, the company’s director of electric vehicle operations, says there’s a lot more planning and strategy involved in running electric trucks.
“You have to be smart about where you’re sending them,” he said in a profile video on the Run on Less website.
As Magistrale describes it, the six-battery pack has an effective range of 200-220 miles, but it weighs considerably more than the four-pack option that has a range of about 120 miles.
“The six-battery pack doesn’t require opportunity charging during the day, while with the four-battery pack, the driver will have to opportunity charge for 30 minutes to an hour during the shift,” he notes.
Roeth told HDT the extra battery weight adds range and improves vehicle utilization, but it limits the loads that can be carried.
“If it’s a heavy container, they may not be able to stay under 82,000 pounds GVW, but they can run the whole day.”
The extra weight we’re talking about here is about 4,000-5,000 pounds heavier than a typical diesel tractor. That’s where the planning and strategy come in.
Making Battery-Electric Work
Call it a barrier if you will, but it takes more effort and planning to make electric trucks viable in a diesel-driven economy. Clearly, they aren’t yet suited for the long-haul open-board market, but tons of niche applications exist where they can fit it well.
For example, Aliquippa, Pennsylvania-based PGT Trucking just initiated a dedicated “shuttle service” with a nearby steel processing company, Steel Dynamics.
These inter-plant movements are within the truck’s range, and Steel Dynamics installed a charging station at one location to provide opportunity charging while loading and unloading.
“When looking at opportunities for battery-electric trucks, we looked at our existing lanes to determine when they would fit,” says Andrew Erin, PGT’s vice president of technology advancement. “We found with what we had moved in the recent past there was enough there to keep a lot of these trucks busy. We worked with a few key customers, asking them to look at their book of business to see if it could work. And we found those opportunities.”
Drilling a little deeper, Erin says they determined they could run enough miles with the trucks that the variable costs start to work in the company’s favor, offsetting the fixed costs while staying within the range limits of the truck.
“I call it the Goldilocks zone,” he says. “There's a band in there, but it’s not a huge one. So that means we have to be intentional in how we operationalize the truck.”
PGT Trucking President Gregg Troian, is committed to decarbonization, and admits his preference to work with customers with a similar sustainability commitment. He sees the long-term benefits and says he’s prepared to take a bit of a hit getting electric trucks into service.
“I'm not afraid to tell you that we were prepared to take a loss on some of these trucks to get them into our system,” he says. “We’re not asking our customers pay for the truck, but we’re also not talking to people who have no interest in this. We have people that say, ‘I’d really like my products transported on a truck that has no carbon emissions. What do I have to do or how can we work this out together?’”
Stumbling Blocks to Wider Adoption
It’s easy enough to find good news stories on BEV adoption, and NACFE’s Run on Less program is uncovering lots of them. But when it comes to the workaday fleets and general commodity irregular route carriers, we still have a long way to go.
Fleets wishing to move toward sustainability have decisions to make, and several options to consider, not the least of which is choosing an alternative energy source.
Whether it’s natural gas, hydrogen fuel cell or battery electric, each requires a commitment to continue moving forward, with no easy or inexpensive way for a mid-course correction. It’s easy to understand the reluctance of many fleet execs to commit at this point in time.
Looking ahead, it’s unlikely we’ll see any miracles in battery technology enabling vastly longer ranges or dramatically lighter trucks.
While fuel cells look more attractive for longer hauls, there are cost and weight issues there, too.
Lydia Vieth, research analyst, electrification and autonomy at ACT research, says much of the growth in the Class 8 battery electric market will likely be driven by regulations.
“Through the end of the decade, I'll say, a lot of it is driven by Advanced Clean Truck regulations coming into play, including the sales mandates,” she says.
California is obviously leading that charge, but by 2027, eight additional states will have joined California in adopting Advanced Clean Trucks rules, including Washington, Oregon and Colorado in the West, and New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Maryland in the East. So far, states in the South, Southeast and Midwest have not yet committed to adopting these regulations.
Vieth says ACT Research forecasts 25% adoption of some form of zero-emissions truck by 2030, and as much as 50% by 2040. Those numbers will be led by the light- and medium-duty sectors, where regulations are hardly needed owing to the positive economic performance of those vehicles.
“Fleets running Class 4-6 electric trucks are already seeing savings in the total cost of ownership compared to diesel power,” Vieth says. “Those trucks already make sense from a business case, not just because regulations are pushing sales.”
Making the Business Case for Heavy-Duty Electric Trucks
The business case for Class 8 trucks is a bit harder to make, but for PGT, Performance Team, UPS and many others, it’s not inconceivable.
Vieth says Class 8 remains the lowest of ACT’s growth predictions, but she sees the business case improving over time. The technology will improve, while the price gap will narrow as electric trucks are produced at more scale and the cost of diesel trucks goes up in response to greenhouse gas and low-NOx regulations set to come into effect in 2027 and beyond.
“We’re not saying that's going to go guns blazing, but that’ll be a steady improvement over time. I think that’s what we can hope for,” she admits.
What Can Fleets Do Now?
While Class 8 electrification won’t work for everyone, at least not in the near term, Roeth suggests fleets look at their operations to see if any opportunities exist, or if there’s any customer interest where those conversations can be started.
He also stresses the importance of thinking in specifics, not generalities, when digging into electrification opportunities:
- Are there return-to-base opportunities in the fleet?
- Are your payloads reasonable and predictable?
- Will the local grid support charging facilities?
- Do subsidies and incentive programs exist in your jurisdiction?
“It’s really important to get past talking about electric trucks generally,” he urges. “It’s more important to talk electric trucks in this segment, that segment or the other segment. There are surprising numbers of suitable applications out there right now.
“And if electric just won’t work, do all you can to improve the mpg on your diesel fleet,” he adds. “Everything we do contributes to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.”
If you’re still not convinced, consider this: According to the Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics, approximately 74% of the weight and 56% of the value of goods moved less than 250 miles between origin and destination in 2022. That’s about the same mileage as a typical Class 8 battery-electric truck.