Electric Semi Trucks – What Do They Bring To The Table?
April 17, 2019
April 17, 2019
Electric semi trucks – ask anyone in the trucking industry a decade or two ago if they were a possibility, and you’d be laughed out of the office. Now, we’ve almost reached the automotive point of no return when it comes to making a large-scale switch to electric motors, and trucks won’t be left out of the equation. Tesla already grabbed headlines back in December 2017 when they announced their Tesla Semi truck which was accompanied by all manner of awe-inspiring facts and figures (which we’ll get to a little further down). With electric tractor trailers now being a when rather than an if, what do they actually bring to the table?
Types Of Electric Trucks
Different companies are taking varying approaches to the electric truck market in the ways they are approaching the fundamental technology.
Fully electric trucks do what they say on the tin, they run purely on electricity, completely doing away with combustion engines.
There are two types of fully electric vehicles – Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs), which use lithium-ion batteries, and Fuel Cell Vehicles (FCVs), which go with hydrogen. While both are being explored as options within the industry, batteries generally look like the preferred and most-used option in the electric vehicle market overall. Which will come to dominate the trucking industry is yet to be seen.
Tesla have chosen to go with batteries in their Tesla Semi, as well as Freightliner (owned by Daimler) in their eCascadia, while Nikola Motor Company initially chose fuel cells for their Nikola One, Nikola Two, and Nikola Tre trucks – though they very recently also announced that they would be producing battery-only versions. Hydrogen has many advantages, such as having a huge amount of specific energy per kg compared to batteries (some 236 times higher), being far lighter and needing less structural additions to a vehicle to accommodate, as well as FCV vehicles having the ability to be refueled faster than BEV vehicles. Unfortunately, the production process cuts deeply into these benefits; extracting, transporting, and storing hydrogen is costly and inefficient – which ends up costing the end user more per mile.
For a more in-depth comparison of BEV and FCV technology, we recommend taking a look at this video.
Hybrid vehicles merge the old and the new – a combustion engine is coupled with some form of electrical input. This could range from regular batteries and regenerative energy features, such as in the Volvo Concept Truck, toScania’s ambitious vision of highway power lines – which will interestingly eliminate a lot of issues related to battery charging and longevity due to the external electrical input.
While hybrid trucks can somewhat help alleviate the problem of emissions and fuel costs and can serve as a stepping stone between technologies, they also fail to cut emissions close to the amount of a fully electric truck, while also missing out on the core benefits of an electric vehicle. We’ll be focusing on fully electric trucks for the purpose of this post.
Pros & Cons
With no fully electric semi trucks fully released on our roads yet, it can be hard to source reliable data, but manufacturers have nonetheless given us a fair amount of figures to work with. Regular electric vehicles are also becoming increasingly more widespread, and demonstrate a number of the same features that semi trucks will incorporate.
- Cost savings – This point primarily stands in relation to the running costs of an electric vehicle. Compared to running a gasoline truck, electric trucks have a much lower cost per mile due to the lower cost of electricity, and will also require much less maintenance over their lifetimes than a traditional engine and all the associated parts.
- Emissions – While electricity often stems from fossil fuel sources, it is nevertheless far more efficient than gasoline. According to the US Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, “EVs convert about 59%–62% of the electrical energy from the grid to power at the wheels. Conventional gasoline vehicles only convert about 17%–21% of the energy stored in gasoline to power at the wheels.” Compared to the standard 7.5MPG from a diesel truck, Nikola claims their truck will achieve 15.4MPG, and Freightliner, with their hybrid prototype semi truck, achieved 12.2MPG during testing. They also don’t release any exhaust fumes, and if the origin of the electricity used is sustainable, are completely green (in operation).
- Driver comfort – All the space savings from the lack of a proper engine and all the associated parts which would normally lead to a far bulkier vehicle can instead be focused on making the driver experience more pleasant. What we have seen so far definitely seems to be pointing in this direction. Spacious cabs with unexpected mod cons for a semi could become commonplace.
- Responsive power – One of the major advantages of electric vehicles over gasoline vehicles is the instant torque they provide. In Tesla’s demonstration, they claimed that their Semi can reach 60mph in 5 seconds without a trailer, and in 20 seconds while loaded to maximum capacity at 80,000 pounds. While no truckers will be pushing their luck by putting the 5 seconds to the test on the open road, these numbers are nonetheless hugely impressive and should help ease any truck-related traffic issues. The Tesla also boasts that it can, at max load, climb a 5% grade at 65mph, compared to the 45mph of the higher end gasoline semis – meaning more distance covered in less time.
- Reduced noise – An often overlooked advantage of electric vehicles is just how quiet they are. Trucks are easily some of the loudest vehicles on the road, so keeping their sounds down to a whisper should make a marked difference to the communities they drive past, and even to drivers themselves. Take a look at the video below to hear for yourself.
- Advanced engineering feats – Stepping away from traditional engine-related engineering allows electric semis to incorporate some advanced technology for benefit of all. For example, by nature of each wheel on the Tesla Semi having an individual electric motor, if one breaks down, the others can continue on without a hitch. In fact, during the reveal event, Elon Musk claimed that even if two of the wheel motors fail, the truck should still be more efficient than a traditional semi. Though not exclusive to electric trucks, Tesla Semis will also be able to automatically travel together in a convoy following a lead vehicle, improving safety.
- The range – According to Tesla, their Semi will have a range of either 300 or 500 miles depending on the model, and seeing as 80% of deliveries are on routes of 250 miles or less, this should be plenty for most truckers to get by on. Nikola Motors claims their FEV truck will have an even higher range of up to 750 miles. Freightliner’s eCascadia has an estimated 250 mile range.
See just how quiet electric semis can be.
- The range – This is worth mentioning in both columns. While some of the numbers given during reveal presentations sound impressive and should be enough for many drivers, they don’t come close to what some gas trucks can accomplish – often between 800-1200 miles on a single tank. Finding a station to refuel is also currently much easier than seeking out a charging station – though this should improve over time.
- Charge time – As we mentioned earlier, refueling times for FEVs are fairly short at roughly 5 minutes, but for BEVs things are slightly different. Tesla estimates state roughly 30 minutes to get to 100% charge, and 20 minutes to hit 80%. While charging shouldn’t be too inconvenient during loading, unloading, or longer stops, it could pose an issue if the need for a charge comes in the midst of travel. Due to Hours of Service rules, truckers in the US are often trying to squeeze as much time out of their potential driving hours as possible, and having to stop off even for 20-30 minutes could interfere with this.
- Initial costs – While Tesla appears to be hitting a sweet spot with the $150,000/180,000 base prices for their Semis, it doesn’t mean that other players in the electric truck market will be similarly competitively priced. The technology going into these vehicles is still cutting edge, and as with any such new tech, has the premium price tag attached to it. The question for prospective buyers will be whether any initial cost differentials can be canceled out by the lifetime savings of running an electric vehicle compared to a gasoline truck.
- End-of-life issues – Most regular electric vehicles have from 8-10 year or 100,000 mile battery warranties. For a regular EV this may not be a problem, but for semi trucks, which can travel upwards of 45,000 miles in a year, the longevity of a battery is incredibly important to calculate the overall lifetime cost of ownership. More specifics on this have not yet been made public.
The Tesla Semi and Nikola One are both slated to release in 2020, with many other electric manufacturers having release dates of 2021 and onwards. Tesla claims to have over 2000 trucks pre-ordered, while Nikola claims over 7000. At the same time, however, Nikola is currently engaging in a $2bn lawsuit against Tesla for alleged patent infringement, so if this goes any further in the courts it could also lead to potential delays, though whether there is any merit to these claims remains to be seen.
Freightliner’s eCascadia is expected to hit the streets at some point during 2019, and should, therefore, have an advantage over its rivals, but with its more limited range, it remains to be seen if companies will prefer to wait out the arrival of trucks with more range on their side. Freightliner has already delivered its first eM2 106 medium-duty electric truck, but the EM2 is intended for local and last-mile delivery, with a range of under 200 miles.
In the case of the Scania electric truck that we mentioned earlier, a lot will also depend on how willing governments are to establish the necessary infrastructure to support these vehicles. A 2km stretch of e-highway was already opened up Sweden in 2016, and in 2019 trials should be starting with 15 Scania trucks on some German e-highways, though they will be part of legitimate transport operations, so should be very useful in gathering real-world data.
One of the major issues with the switch to electric vehicles, in general, is the production process. Traditional gas-driven vehicles have huge economies of scale. The big players – Toyota, VW, GM, and others – have worked hard over the last decades to build out their operations to ensure the most efficient supply chain and cheapest possible components to put into their vehicles.
Electric vehicle manufacturers, on the other hand, are still struggling to get their supply chain and logistics operations fully in place for mass-production. In October 2017, Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted that the Gigafactory 1 (one of Tesla’s battery factories) was in “Production hell, ~8th circle”, and then in late 2018, that Tesla had gone from “production logistics hell to delivery logistics hell”. In mid-April 2019, it was also reported that Tesla and Panasonic’s intended expansion of Gigafactory 1 was being put on hold due to lower than expected Tesla and EV sales. Having said all this, Tesla does appear to at least be exceeding sales estimates for Q1 of 2019 with their Model 3, which is looking to be their most affordable and mainstream vehicle yet.
Hopefully, Tesla and other manufacturers can learn from these production issues and are able to deliver their electric semi trucks in a more streamlined manner – and stay true to their estimated release dates. Even if there are delays, it is clear to see that the industry has an appetite for these vehicles, and will be eager for their release in the next few years.
The electric vehicle market has already shown that EVs are extremely viable and exceed in many ways compared to gas vehicles. The main issues lie in the production process and underlying supply chain issues, cutting costs, battery technology progress and charging, as well as overall pricing and ROI on each vehicle. It won’t be an easy road for manufacturers, but if these problems can be overcome, electric semi trucks as a concept are guaranteed to turn the trucking industry positively on its head and make driving more pleasant for carriers, and hopefully more profitable and cleaner (both environmentally and for our consciences) for everyone involved.
What We Do
Sign up now and save yourself time, money, and effort that you can reinvest elsewhere.