The next battleground for replacing fossil fuel-guzzling vehicles will be US 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 US vehicle emission standards. President Donald Trump is seeking to roll back limits, 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 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 US 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. US 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, Indiana-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.
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 805 kilometres 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 CEO 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.
Diesel trucks are well entrenched in the shipping industry, and there’s little need for a new entrant, Schaeffer said.