Apr 09 2021

Electric Trucks

It’s all about money, and infrastructure. We can talk about what’s best for the environment, but when it comes to individual purchasing decisions, the decisive factors are going to be expense and functionality – how much bang do you get for the buck. This is especially true when it comes to industry. Things like fashion and trendiness don’t really matter on the factory floor, only efficiency, ROI, cost effectiveness.

In our conversion to a green economy, the low carbon options have to be cost effective if we want wide adoption (short of mandates). For electric cars, we are already there. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council:

Over the anticipated 15-year life span of a vehicle, the electricity required to run a battery-powered electric car can be as much as $14,480 cheaper than fueling up an internal combustion vehicle.

That, however, is the best case depending on electricity and gasoline costs. In areas with the highest electricity costs and lowest gasoline prices there can be a small advantage to gas. But there is an overall cost advantage to electric cars. Also, according to Consumer Reports:

Consumers who purchase an electric car can expect to save an average of $4,600 in repair and maintenance costs over the life of the vehicle compared with a gasoline-powered car, CR’s study shows.

A 2018 study combines these factors and takes average value and concludes:

The average cost to operate an EV in the United States is $485 per year, while the average for a gasoline-powered vehicle is $1,117.

Initial purchase price for electric vehicles is still a bit more than for a comparable gasoline car, but the prices are steadily coming down as mass production increases and battery technology steadily improves. Already the operation savings more than pay for the extra cost of the car, but some people may feel the sting of the initial cost more. This can be mitigated by financing the car – the difference in annual cost over a five year loan for loan payments plus operation costs may not be very different, and then the savings begin. Some governments are also helping to bootstrap the electric car market by providing incentives to buy electric, which can make the cost advantage more significant and take away the up front cost barrier.

But what about trucks, specifically heavy-load trucks like semis? They are responsible for 7% of global carbon production. Breaking into that market with electric vehicles would definitely help reach our carbon goals. Tesla announced their electric semi vehicle in 2017, but deliveries have been delayed until 2021. So we will see how they do. There are two factors at work here in terms of the electric semi market. One is that the higher fuel and operation costs of big trucks means that the savings are also greater. Tesla (somewhat self-servingly, to be sure) estimates the fuel savings over the lifetime of their vehicle to be $200,000.

But the potential savings can be killed by another factor – these trucks need greater range, because they are used constantly for making long trips, and time is also money. Longer trips means bigger batteries, means more weight to haul around, and also means more upfront costs. The concern is that the need for more batteries would offset the advantages of electric, and since this is primarily a business decision, the electric semi market is not ready.

Well, a new study from the Stockholm Environment Institute adds another factor to the mix – infrastructure. You can mitigate the need for larger batteries if you have an infrastructure of fast charging stations along routes frequented by large trucks. If you factor this in, then electric semis beat out diesel trucks for cost effectiveness. This is good news, and suggests that countries that invest in these fast charging stations for trucks could also bootstrap the industry. But it may be even better than the assumptions in this study:

In their study, the authors developed a model where an electric lorry operated for 4.5 hours and then charged for 40 minutes on a high-powered device.

Tesla’s semi has up to a 500 mile range. Let’s assume driving at 60 mph, that would be 8.3 hours of driving. This is getting pretty close to the regulated limit anyway – in the US truck drivers can only drive for 11 hours in a 14 hour window, then must go 10 hours without driving (so essentially 11 hours in one day). With a 500 mile range you could drive for 5.5 hours, take a 3 hour break for a meal or whatever while you recharge your vehicle, then drive another 5.5 hours and you are done for the day. You then have 10 hours to do a slow charge at your home base.

Essentially, we are there. Even for heavier trucks, electric vehicles are cost effective over the life of the vehicle in most situations. Adding strategically placed fast charging stations will make it even better. And as battery technology steadily improves it will get better still. Of course, for environmental concerns this also means we need to decarbonize our energy sector, so that we are not charging those vehicles from electricity generated at coal-burning plants. If truck drivers are willing, they can drive during peak energy usage periods (or overnight) and recharge during peak energy production periods (when the sun is shining). Energy pricing can easily incentivize this. But no matter what, we need to get off fossil fuel for energy production. That’s a separate article, which I have written about several times already.


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