The next battleground for replacing fossil fuel-guzzling vehicles will be U.S. interstate highways, where long-haul trucks keep the economy moving.
Electric trucks are coming, and they’ll be cleaner and cheaper to operate than conventional models that burn diesel, according to Tesla Inc., which already has prototypes on the road. Diesel advocates say range and recharging will be bigger hurdles for massive 18-wheelers than they’ve been for cars, and it will be several years before battery-powered models are ready for the open road.
The shift comes amid a growing debate over U.S. vehicle emission standards. President Donald Trump is seeking to roll back previously planned limits for future years, while California and other states are challenging the plan in the court.
“Right now, we don’t think it’s viable,” said Jon Mills, a spokesman for Indiana-based engine maker Cummins Inc. Electric trucks are “more viable where you have shorter routes, less loads and you’re able to recharge.”
The transition will have a significant impact on commerce and the environment. Trucks are the lifeblood of the U.S. economy, handling 71 percent of the food, retail goods, construction supplies and other freight delivered every day. They’re also a significant source of air pollution. U.S. greenhouse gases from medium- and heavy-duty trucks increased 85 percent from 1990 to 2016, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, accounting for about 23 percent of carbon emissions from transportation in 2016.
While electric trucks will curb pollution, it’s not clear the industry is ready to switch, said Mills. For starters, long-haul truckers would need a place to recharge during cross-country trips. Plus, batteries are heavy, and adding weight cuts into the cargo truckers are paid to haul.
Cummins supplies engines for vehicles including consumer pickups, fire engines, tractors and heavy-duty trucks. Most burn diesel and the Columbus-based company has some that use natural gas. It’s also developing electric motors, but Mills doesn’t expect much demand for them in big trucks anytime soon.
Diesel will be “the primary option for heavy duty trucking markets, long haul especially, for a decade or more,” Mills said in an interview.
Tesla expects it sooner. The top electric car maker unveiled the Semi in November, a so-called Class 8 truck that can haul a maximum vehicle weight of 80,000 pounds, the standard size for long-haul shipping. It will go about 500 miles on a charge, with a base price of $180,000. A cheaper version will go 300 miles. The company expects to deliver production models next year and says Walmart Inc. and PepsiCo Inc. are among customers that have already placed orders.
Tesla chief executive Elon Musk said during the November introduction that the Semi costs about $1.26 per mile to operate, compared with $1.51 a mile for diesel models. The company declined to answer additional questions about the Semi.
Diesel backers question Tesla’s claims.
“It’s easy if you’re just coming into this market to say ‘they’re $1.50 per mile and we can do it for $1.20,’ said Allen Schaeffer, executive director at the Diesel Technology Forum trade group. “But where’s the proof? I haven’t seen it.”
Diesel trucks are well entrenched in the shipping industry, and there’s little need for a new entrant, Schaeffer said. The industry has made significant advances in reducing pollution. According to EPA estimates, emissions from current engines are about 85 percent lower than before 2007, when new standards took effect.
“Diesel is the benchmark for energy efficiency,” Schaeffer said. “Diesel dominates the entire sector.”
There are other issues that concern truckers. A 500-mile range is fine for shorter delivery routes but diesel trucks typically go much further before refueling, sometimes more than 2,000 miles. Also, some drivers get paid by the mile, and wouldn’t make money while batteries recharge.
Tesla said it’s planning a high-speed truck Megacharger that, in about 30 minutes, would give a battery enough juice to go 400 miles. The company hasn’t said when it would be available.
Thor Trucks Inc. is also developing electric trucks, but the Los Angeles-based company is focusing initially on shorter delivery routes. United Parcel Service Inc. is testing a medium-duty vehicle now.
Thor announced a Class 8 in December. CEO Dakota Semler said he’s already got orders, though he wouldn’t identify the customers. The ET-One is aimed at customers with shorter delivery needs. It will have a top range of 300 miles and a base price of $150,000. The company said the battery can fully recharge in 90 minutes.
“If you’re able to produce a vehicle that would save fleets money, there’s really no reason why you’re not able to adopt more of them,” Semler said in an interview.
Electric trucks are slowly gaining momentum, said Don Ake, vice president of commercial vehicles at FTR Transportation Intelligence. They’ll enter the market next year, and he said they would be a more competitive option in about five years.
“There’s going to be a competitive battle at some point,” said Ake. “Diesel isn’t going down without a fight.”