No doubt the electric semi is on its way, but it may take some time to replace the ubiquitous tractor trailers churning over the nation’s freeways. But by the late 2030s the sound of the grinding grunt of diesels may be replaced by the near-silent whirr of electric motors.

In August 2019, Daimler Trucks North America handed over the keys of two electric Class 8 prototypes to truck leasing giant Penske and drayage heavyweight NFI Industries. The two companies have been putting the eCascadia model electric vehicle semi through its paces ever since.

“Everything is trending in the right direction and we keep moving forward,” reported Bill Bliem, NFI’s senior vice president, fleet services. NFI is now testing ten eCascadias, “The trucks are running fantastic. The drivers absolutely love them. They think they’re the greatest thing in the world.”

NFI is now testing ten eCascadias.
NFI is now testing ten eCascadias.

NFI’s Daimler experience represents one of the most advanced testing programs of any electric-powered semi in the US. Daimler customers are now evaluating a total of 20 eCascadias. Yet it’s anything but a sprint to the finish line. Commercial production on the eCascadia is now scheduled to begin in the first quarter of 2022.

Volvo Trucks North America just delivered some prototypes to operators, including NFI. However, it won’t even announce until “by the end of this year,” it said, when it expects commercial production to begin, or lay out details of cost, battery specs and range.

Rival Kenworth said in October that it will launch commercial production of its first offering sometime next year.

In October, as well, Toyota Motor North America announced that it would tie up with Hino Trucks to develop a Class 8 vehicle specifically for the North American market. No production timetable was given. Hino will use Toyota’s hydrogen-based fuel cell technology, a more expensive alternative that provides better range than batteries. (See Fuel cells may provide jolt to switch from diesel to electric).

First Deliveries

Chinese manufacturer BYD, which claims to be the world’s largest electric vehicles manufacturer, markets the commercial availability of semis, but numbers remain extremely small. Early this year, BYD announced it had delivered in the US its 100th truck, across all classes. The recipient was Anheuser-Busch, which now operates 21 BYD electric semis.

Meanwhile, Tesla keeps moving back the commercial production timeline of its electric semi, which it unveiled in 2017. Tesla has been taking deposits on orders since then, but while it has delivered 15 prototype semis to PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay manufacturing plant in California, other customers keep waiting for production to begin. That includes Walmart Canada, which has ordered 130 Tesla electric semis. Tesla’s latest quarterly report, released the end of October, again termed its semi project “under development” and warned investors of possible production delays.

Add to all this some buzz-heavy upstarts. That includes the industry’s most controversial player, Nicola Motor, which also will rely on fuel cell technology. Nikola has displayed a dizzying array of highs and lows. It just announced a tie-up with GM while its founder resigned amidst accusations of fraud and sexual abuse.

That deal was short-lived and Nikola’s fortunes plummeted soon after. Its high-powered founder, Trevor Milton, was forced to resign as executive chairman in late September. This followed a damning report by a short seller, which alleged fraud and deception. GM renegotiated terms of the partnership and, in late November, the two companies announced GM would no longer make Nikola’s pickup trucks nor would it take a piece of the upstart manufacturer. GM would, however, make its fuel-cell technology available.

Nikola is now the subject of multiple US government department investigations. Its stock price is now less than a fourth its June high.

Uphill Battle

From old guard manufacturing giants to well-well-heeled startups, EV vehicle makers are facing an uphill battle. While committed to developing a zero-emissions semi, they are years away from producing and selling in mass quantities. The current state of play for the industry: Prototypes and pre-production.

“This is going to be a long and winding road until we scale up this technology to make it the mainstream in the industry,” warned Michael Scheib, who heads Daimler North America’s eMobility program, at that 2019 ceremony outside a California winery.

Those monitoring the industry agree that it is wishful thinking to expect thousands of electric trucks to ply American highways anytime soon or that they will become a guiding force in the marketplace, even by the end of this decade.

“I view 2040 as the time where the default has gone from gas and diesel to electric,” said Mike Roeth, executive director of North American Council for Freight Efficiency, or NACFE, and director of the Rocky Mountain Institute’s trucking program

There are a whole host of reasons why production of electric semis represents more a crawl than a dash and why usage won’t even mirror electric cars for years to come. Technological hurdles combine with economics and even public policy to retard both vehicle development and usage. Issues extend from initial vehicle cost to a lack of charging station infrastructure that must stretch, by the very nature of trucking, across the US. Limited range is a major issue as well.

“We’re in that early stage right now,” said Roeth. “Let’s call it two to three times the cost of a diesel truck today and [electric semis] essentially go half the miles.”

Expect the electrification of smaller-sized trucks and delivery vans to move at a much more rapid pace than semis. The technology and economics are far more favorable for the lighter trucks. Dominance “will happen earlier on the medium duty side, maybe 2030, 2032ish” said Roeth.

Yet, there’s some reason to believe that once EV Class 8 production ramps up, demand will inch up as well, although that assumes some level of government support. Trucking giant Knight-Swift, for example, is also testing the eCascadia, having pledged to half its emissions by 2035.

NACFE produced a chart that attempted to predict when electric semis would be competitive with diesel. The results are telling: It projected the initial cost of an electric semi won’t reach parity with a diesel or gasoline-powered truck until after 2030. However, operating cost parity will be reached in 2025, as will be “net after all factors.”

This could be overly optimistic, because production schedules of most vehicles aren’t even set. Nor are most of the price tags.

That initial cost is a bit hard to pin down, but it’s expensive. “Without subsidies and everything else, it’s about three, 3 1/2 times the cost of a diesel tractor,” said Biem.

Even if Tesla, which touted a $200,000 price tag in 2017, lives up to its initial promise, it would come in at maybe $80,000 more than a reasonably priced semi-tractor costs. And analysts and operators alike are highly skeptical that Tesla can offer a product so cheaply, even with government subsidies.

Battery-related infrastructure in general, and charging stations in particular, represent another huge barrier for rapid and widespread adoption. That’s especially true for long-haul trucking, which would be dependent on roadside charging. Roeth estimates interstate public charging stations are “at least five years away and possibly ten.”

The Charge Challenge

Add to that the range of the batteries themselves. At one end of the spectrum is BYD, better known in the US as a producer of electric busses. Its Class 8 trucks only get 125 miles on a charge, with a top speed of 65mph. That’s hardly adequate for local delivery schedules, let alone inter-city travel at high speeds.

Kenworth’s specs aren’t much better. The T680E has a range of only 150 miles, with a battery recharge time of 3.3 hours.

Tesla claims that its top-end battery configuration would enable a fully-loaded semi to travel 500 miles on a single charge. But operators say they need 600 to 800 miles without a fully developed, public charging station network.

Roeth, for one, believes the first charging networks will be owned and operated by the transport fleet operators themselves. “That makes it a little bit easier because they can control it all,” he said.

But, he added, it will still be a challenge figuring out all sorts of variables including where to put them, how many will be needed and where to source the electricity.

Then, there’s the cost of charging stations. Estimates are all over the place. But one California government study two years back pegged the cost of an electric bus charging station at $250,000.

According to Roeth, the first fleets to embrace zero-emissions trucks will likely be “consumer-facing brands.” Not only do electric trucks project an environmentally positive message to the public and will help in shareholder issues, their fleets are more manageable, since trucks travel relatively short distances each day from distribution centers to retail outlets such as supermarkets and return to depots at night.

It’s no coincidence that PepsiCo and Anheuser-Busch have high visibility projects and that they’ve both placed substantial orders for zero-emissions semis.

However, some logistics companies are active as well. NFI, for example, wants to be an early adapter and is committed to electrifying its fleet because, as Biem said, “it’s the right thing to do.”

NFI executives have stated in the past that they want between one-third and one-half their fleet, which currently stands at more than 4,000 tractors, to be electric by the middle of this decade. According to Biem, that timetable has been pushed back by many factors, notably battery technology, which isn’t progressing as quickly as expected.

Pockets of adaptation will happen. Biem cited NFI’s Southern California drayage operations, where both the Daimler and the Volvo rigs are being tested. Generous government incentives at the local and state level make these possible.

NFI now operates a fleet of 65 rigs that move between the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and warehouses in Chino, in the Inland Empire. It’s about 140 miles round trip, which means the eCascadia, for example, can, without recharging, make one round trip, but not two. Recharging expended batteries takes three hours, which is far too long for same-day transport.

Regardless, Biem said, that particular drayage fleet should be completely electric by 2025.

That won’t tip the scales in favor of electric semis in California, let alone the US, but it will help a bit. Others will follow.