Battery energy density improvements, real world results and every credible total cost of ownership assessment makes it clear all trucks will electrify

As we electrify everything everywhere all at once to deal with global warming, one of the questions that comes up is: "What about trucks?" And the answer is the same as for every other form of ground transportation: electricity via batteries and maybe with grid-ties.

Let's disambiguate a few things here as there's a lot of nonsense thrown around about trucking, much of it from the trucking industry and a bunch of it from the rail industry it competes and interacts with.

Trucks come in multiple sizes and operational characteristics. Most of them have fairly narrow geographical reaches and loads. Think Amazon delivery vans, garbage trucks and 18 wheelers that bring produce and other food products from suburban distribution centers to big grocery stores every day. None of these trucks anywhere in the world have any problems at all with running on batteries. Range and load just aren't issues.

As a case in point, Pepsi is now running 21 Tesla Semis on regular routes of up to 450 miles to and from its Sacramento, California distribution center. They are carrying Frito Lay potato chips and full loads of soft drinks.

In September 2023 a large data gathering event occurred, the "Run on Less" event organized by the North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE). The loads, routes and charging of 22 different electric semi trucks from multiple manufacturers being used by different organizations in different parts of the USA were captured and compared. While Tesla's Semi and charging were head and shoulders above the rest, trucks from other vendors were easily doing 150 miles and up a day with real loads and routes.

There's a lot of noise about Class 8 trucks and weight which even the empirical reality of Tesla hauling Pepsi hundreds of miles isn't putting to bed. But weight of trucks and potential damage to roads are red herrings.

Current battery electric semi tractors are heavier than fully fueled long-haul diesel tractors. Battery energy density today still requires a lot of batteries to achieve the ranges Tesla and other manufacturers are delivering. In the USA, Class 8 trucks are limited to a loaded vehicle weight of 80,000 pounds, about 36 metric tons. Most jurisdictions have permitted electric semis to be 2% to 3% heavier.

When I discussed this with David Cebon, founder of the Centre for Sustainable Road Freight, roads expert and mechanical engineering professor at Cambridge earlier this year he made a few points worth repeating.

Class 8 trucks are simply the lowest common denominator for freight trucks in North America. Every country and state allows them to operate, so they can freely cross borders. However, many US states such as Michigan already allow much heavier trucks on their roads, in that case over double the 80,000 pounds. Class 8 is a regulatory convenience, not a hard limit, and allowing electric Class 8 trucks to be slightly heavier is not an issue.

The decades-ago US study which found an exponential relationship between the weight on axles and road damage was deeply flawed. A two-year study on a closed loop had significant frost heave damage in the second year, this wasn't accounted for and then the statistical study itself was further botched. Despite this, it became an accepted rule of civil engineering and an anti-EV meme.

It's been thoroughly debunked, including by Cebon himself long before he turned to decarbonization of trucking. Much heavier trucks than fully loaded Class 8 electric trucks are already running on roads globally and if the road damage claims were true, all of those roads would be rubble in months.

But what about range? Clearly we already have a very large part of the trucking industry's operational requirements met with current batteries. But trucks run a lot further than 450 miles in long-haul trucking. The longest range on a US diesel truck is around 2,100 miles when fully fueled, and the USA, as far as I can tell, relies far more on trucking for freight movement than most geographies.

Is that within the range of battery electric energy densities? It certainly is. The world's largest EV battery manufacturer, China's CATL, started manufacturing and shipping a battery with twice the energy per unit of weight as the ones in Tesla's trucks and cars this year. It's initially focused on the electric aviation market, but will be selling it for road vehicles in 2024. The 450 miles becomes 900 miles on a single charge, and the over 1,000 miles one of the Semis traveled in a single day on its rounds potentially increases to 1,500 miles or more including time at very high speed chargers.

That's with batteries commercially available right now. Four different organizations that I'm aware of in multiple countries have overcome the technical challenges and are commercializing silicon battery chemistries. The theoretical energy density maximum is five times that of CATL's new batteries. Only doubling it is required to provide equivalent range as diesel semis viable with a lighter tractor and hence more load.

Most analyses which dismiss batteries for trucking make assumptions that batteries are not still improving rapidly on metrics of price and energy density.

But still, that doesn't solve the system problem. We need to get electricity into those new batteries. Different countries have different rules for drivers, with the USA allowing them to drive far longer with fewer rests than Europe. Europe's rules provide lots of time for charging as do the USA's with the new batteries and very high speed chargers.

But we have to get very high speed chargers into truck stops and get the electricity to the truck stops. In many parts of the world, this isn't particularly onerous. In the long rural routes of the USA with its relatively weak grid, it's a bit more challenging. Tesla solved this for its cars by building the world's most reliable inter-city high-speed charging network, something it's doing on four continents. Tesla is making its 1 MW power Megacharger the new standard in its network, so every Tesla Supercharger location will be able to charge Tesla Semis. Other vendors will catch up.

Even before that, with a range with CATL batteries of 900 miles, a Tesla Semi would only have to charge up twice in the middle of the country to cross the entirety of the USA. It's not onerous to build sufficient chargers initially for a small number of electric trucks and keep adding to them every year. It's not like we have to electrify every truck stop tomorrow.

The power requirements are easily managed with batteries at the charging locations to buffer and arbitrage electricity. There are studies with very bad assumptions about battery energy densities and prices which try to pretend that delivering three times as much electricity to refueling stations to make hydrogen for truck fuel is somehow almost as cheap or that sending 14 times as many tankers with hydrogen to truck stops to support them is remotely reasonable, but they don't stand up to scrutiny and should be ignored. At this point you have to have a significant bias for hydrogen to claim that it's required or competitive.

But there are challenges with this model as well. Autonomous trucking and autonomous platooning of freight trucks is a foregone conclusion, even if promised delivery timetables have slipped. That's going to have an inevitable downward pressure on required rest stops. And automated loading and unloading of tractors at depots is putting downward pressure on the time available when the truck is receiving or discharging its load. However, given that energy costs for electric trucking are so much lower than diesel even without pricing carbon, I just see this as an operational optimization exercise, one which I have every faith in the logistics expertise of trucking firms to resolve.

Cebon and I spoke about another alternative which he favors and I consider less likely to be necessary, which is putting overhead trolley wires above lanes of heavy trucking routes and adding extensible connectors — pantographs — to the top of semi tractors. This is completely technically viable, is a century old technology used with buses, trolleys and heavy trains globally and would enable the semis to both run on grid electricity and charge their batteries for periods off the highway. And it's entirely possible to put range extending generators on trucks running biodiesel for really odd circumstances.

There's nothing technically difficult about these options, and it's likely that they will be used in some places as interim solutions until very high speed chargers and high-energy density batteries are everywhere.

Is there any real world evidence to support massive electrification of trucking? Yes, there is. China has over 500,000 electric trucks on its roads already and is adding more daily. Meanwhile there are rounding error numbers of trucks with hydrogen and other alternatives to batteries and electric motors. The test has been run. Battery electric won.

The USA's transportation blueprint and hydrogen strategy are both based on broken assumptions and bad faith efforts to justify hydrogen, driven in large part by Congress forcing the authors to give the US fossil fuel industry a future. Similar problems exist in Europe, where they are intending to build a massive hydrogen pipeline effort assuming hydrogen will be shipped to ports like Rotterdam for use in transportation and heating applications.

But these efforts to perpetuate the hydro in hydrocarbon will crash on the shoals of physics and economics, the Scylla and Charybdis of hydrogen for energy. Just as with everything else, the future of trucking is electric.