An electric revolution is coming to the trucking industry. It won’t happen overnight, but in the coming years, trucking will transition from diesel fuel to electricity as the power source of choice in transporting goods across North America and Europe. There has been considerable pressure on civilian drivers to give up their gas-powered cars and light trucks for hybrid and electric vehicles, but reducing the carbon footprint of the semitrucks and 18-wheelers that crisscross the continent may prove to have an even greater impact on the environment, making this transition imperative. The advent of electrification in trucking is not just one upgrade, but a series of upgrades throughout the industry. Here’s a look at how the trucking industry will go electric from top to bottom.
Trucking is a business, and businessmen don’t take big leaps without looking first. Before we see electric trucks hitting the road in great numbers, trucking companies will do the math on short-term and long-term costs and benefits. Currently, electric trucks cost, on average, 20 percent more than equivalent diesel trucks. That may seem like a small price to pay for saving the planet but extrapolating the cost of a new truck across an entire fleet will call for liquidity and credit that not all firms can necessarily access.
While these upfront costs may mean some pain for truck buyers, the lower costs of operating these expensive vehicles should close the gap over the lifespan of the truck. The average truck costs $1.26 per mile to operate vis-à-vis a diesel truck’s $1.38, nearly 10 percent cheaper per mile. Assuming that the average truck driver logs 100,000 miles per year, this means that electric trucking could represent savings of about $12,000 per year in operational costs—and that’s not even accounting for advances in electric trucks bringing those per-mile costs further down.
Re-Investing in the Fleet
One misconception laypeople have about electrification in trucking is that it’s simply a matter of switching out those exhaust-belching diesel engines for clean-burning electric engines. If only it were that easy! There are simply too many moving parts involved to make a series of quick, one-time substitutions within the current models. Instead, what you will see is a case of driving the existing fleet into the ground, so to speak. Extant diesel trucks will be pushed to the ends of their useful lives and retired, and only then replaced with new electric trucks. Trucks are expensive, and fleet owners are loath to leave miles on the table with their current investments. Owners may also hold out hope that by waiting just a little longer, they may see prices drop on electric trucks, narrowing the gap between new diesel trucks and their more expensive electric counterparts. But with America turning over roughly one-eighth of its trucks on the road each year, trucking firms may have to pick up the pace to replace more trucks than that each year.
While electric trucks will eventually become mainstream, it’ll still be some time before an electric truck pulls into Los Angeles from Kansas City. The industry hopes to introduce electrification with a three-phase rollout, from small to large vehicles, from local to transcontinental trips. Electrification begins first with medium-duty box trucks and vans that handle minor jobs like deliveries and relocations in a local service area. Once new technology and vehicles have proved themselves at this level, look for trucking companies to implement electric semitrucks for regional hauls, particularly around the densely populated Northeast and Great Lakes corridors, where opportunities for charging will not be few and far between. As fuel cells hit the market and obviate the need for frequent intermediate charging, then you may finally see electrification reach the long-haul trucking that makes so much of modern living possible.
Electric trucking may not be reinventing the wheel, but reinventing the engine is still a considerable undertaking. The changeover to electric will require a total reimagining of trucking facilities, with the new machinery and technology of the fleet demanding new approaches to maintenance, repairs, storage, and charging. The electrification of trucking facilities represents another cost to owners beyond replacing the trucks themselves, all the way down to retraining mechanics. In addition to the equipment and human cost, facility managers and ownership will have to deal with new infrastructural costs as well.
Government and Utility Deals
Though electricity-fueled trucking will be better for the environment and ultimately more affordable than its petroleum-based predecessor, trucking companies will still look for assistance in keeping costs competitive with diesel in the early onset of electric trucking. Look for companies to seek incentives with local governments and utilities to defray the costs of new electric infrastructure such as charging stations, as well as negotiate reduced rates for electricity. Because such a big part of the thrust behind electrification is the common good of cleaner air and lower dependence on fossil fuels, trucking companies will expect governments to come to the negotiating table with significant concessions for the costs that private industry will bear for the public benefit. Intractable government bodies and utilities, as well as public-interest groups who denounce almost all government incentives and allowances as “handouts,” may be a stumbling block on the road to electrification.
Electrification and Unitruck
At Unitruck, we’re excited about the bold future of widespread electric trucking and we’ll be sure to keep a close eye on how the trucking industry will go electric. As safety and efficiency are two of our key values, there’s great promise in trucks that boast superior fuel economy and advances in safety while contributing to a greener and cleaner Earth. But even as the diesel trucks leave the highways and head for retirement, Unitruck will continue to make great trucks even better with their selections of aftermarket parts, like Volvo semi-truck mirrors that give drivers a clearer perspective as they transport our necessary goods more sustainably. In fact, we hope that when fuel-cell trucks make their inaugural long hauls across North America, they’ll be outfitted with fine aftermarket parts from Unitruck.