Diesel truck crossing a desert that's too big for electric big rigs

Coming to America: The Future of Electric Big Rigs

by kirkcoburn
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The global market for electric vehicles (EVs) grew astonishingly well in late 2022. According to Insideevs.com, October and September were record-breaking months, particularly in China. In 2022, more than 7.7 million new EVs were registered to drivers worldwide. 

So it’s no surprise that Tesla, Volvo, Nikola Motors, and Daimler are pushing electric big rigs to European markets in early 2023. 

Still, American commercial drivers scoff at the notion of electric big rigs. And they have plenty of reasons to do so. Today, we’ll explore the current challenges to these markets and possible ways they will be overcome. If you’re wondering if this is a good time to get in the EV charging station game, it is! Particularly if you have Asian or European connections. 

Let’s look at the challenges associated with electric trucks on this side of the pond.

American Challenges for the Electric Truck Market

Two significant hurdles to the plausibility of electric big rigs are related to size. We’re talking about square miles — and the tremendous amount of freight moving across them.

Size Matters

First, our country’s size is just shy of 3.8 million square miles. Europe, as a whole, is 4% larger than the US. But the European nations are much smaller and more densely populated.

To put that in perspective, the entire country of Italy could fit in the state of Texas twice, with room to spare. An electric truck in Italy could traverse the country twice, while a Texas truck traveling the same number of miles wouldn’t even cross state borders. 

American trucks are expected to go longer distances with their precious freight, and there’s a lot of it. So that’s the second issue with EV trucks.

How Much Freight Do US Trucks Move?

In the continental US, trucks move about 72% of our freight (by weight). If you look around your home office right now, you can see hundreds of items that came to you via truck, like:

  • Furniture
  • Electronics and tech devices
  • Groceries
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Cleaning products
  • Clothing
  • Cosmetics
  • Floor coverings
  • Drapery
  • And even the paint on your walls

Anything that wasn’t grown or manufactured in your neighborhood spent time on at least one truck. We’re talking about:

  • 10.93 billion tons of freight moved in a year (21,860,000,000,000,000 lbs)
  • An annual cargo value of $875.5 billion

Our current technology for electric big rigs does not have the towing capability to move these heavy loads across very long distances. 

Will EV Trucks Work for Shorter Routes?

Probably, yes. The trucks that move secondary shipments — like the Amazon boxes piled up at your door over the holidays — will likely be electrified quickly.

Amazon Is Already Pushing Electric Trucks

Amazon is attempting this as we speak. In late 2022, Amazon partnered with EV fleet provider Rivian to transport holiday packages in 100 major cities like Dallas, San Diego, and Seattle. In addition, Amazon will provide all-electric delivery to 100,000 US cities by 2030. 

This is part of Amazon’s Climate Pledge to reach net-zero carbon emissions company-wide by 2040. 

But ultimately, the long distances and the enormous weight of freight stand in the way of electric big rigs.

A Note on American Consumerism

Americans, by the way, have a tremendous appetite for all things. We are the world’s most consumptive nation. American consumerism is a defining feature of our culture. We eat more, own more, and finance more than anyone else!

But we shouldn’t feel bad about that (the credit card companies love it). Some say the global economy depends on our consumerism. So go ahead and enjoy that imported coffee while you fool around on your imported phone. The whole world is counting on you. 

We’ve talked about size and weight but haven’t touched on topography.

Purple Mountain Majesties From Sea to Shining Sea

Semitruck coming up the side of a mountain

The US is home to three major mountain ranges:

  1. The Rockies
  2. The Sierra Nevadas
  3. The Appalachian Mountains

We also have smaller mountain ranges, like the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Adirondacks.

It’s Challenging Topography for Electric Trucks

This is where diesel engines shine! They can pull the lawful limit of 80,000 lbs gross weight — truck and freight combined — up a steep grade all day. EV technology isn’t there yet, in terms of either gross weight or uphill towing ability. Lithium-ion batteries falter too quickly under the increased load, and that’s dangerous for everyone on the road.

Still, the framework is there, and better batteries will come eventually, especially with VC funding behind the innovation.

Yes, Electric Big Rigs Are Possible, Someday

If you don’t believe us, think about computers in the 1970s. They took up an entire room and had less computing power than the cell phone in your pocket. It’s only a matter of time before we have outstanding batteries, and next will come cheap knock-off versions of them. It’s all part of the product life cycle which governs all products, especially tech. 

But batteries are only part of the problem. Because even the best battery — one that could pull 80,000 lbs up a mountain all day — will still need to be charged. And that poses two more problems for American truckers:

  1. EV charging takes MUCH longer than pumping diesel
  2. There are parts of the country where establishing a charging station will be difficult

Let’s unpack those.

Commercial Drivers’ Work Hours Are Strictly Regulated in the US

Unlike an Italian truck driver, who could crisscross their country every work day, American truckers spend several days — or even weeks — on the road. The length of their work days, their break times, and long periods of off-time are all closely monitored.

Federal laws dictate US truckers can:

  • Drive for 11 hours in one day, but only after taking a 10-hour break
  • Take a 30-minute break after driving eight hours
  • Limit their driving to 60 or 70 hours per week, depending on their seven- or eight-day week schedule
  • Restart a new week of driving by taking a 34-hour break

Long lines and refueling hiccups are already a challenge for our truckers. Nothing is more frustrating for a commercial driver than pulling up to their favorite truck stop but waiting for an hour to get to the pump. Imagine how their frustrations will grow when every truck ahead of them needs two hours to recharge! 

Many current CDL drivers state they will find a new career or retire when electric rigs become the standard. We don’t blame them, but we hope a new generation of drivers will be eager to take their place.

This is a big deal because the US is already experiencing a driver shortage. For ravenous American consumers, that means longer wait times and more supply chain struggles in the future. 

There Are Few Places to Charge an EV in Some Parts of the Country

Big rigs move a lot of freight across the immense Mojave desert. There are stretches of the country in New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and California that don’t have truck stops. It would be dangerous for an electric vehicle to run out of juice in those places, especially during sweltering summers that can be 120 degrees! Not only is the driver at risk, but that heat would damage many types of freight. 

There could be a significant opportunity for investors in charging networks in these remote areas. The challenge is balancing the need for EV charging with the paperwork process involved. Much of the Mojave desert is tribal land or part of national and state park systems.

But if you have the capital, this would be an excellent time to start. We imagine an investor would begin by researching the most traveled roads through the desert and plan your recharging station from there. If you really want to attract commercial drivers, you might offer other amenities they crave. Like clean restrooms, hot showers, and decent food.

The Opposing View: We’re Ready for EV Trucks Today

Some believe electric trucks are viable today. For example, in May 2022, RMI.org published an article by Laurie Stone, who believes we are now ready for electric big rigs. 

Stone cites RMI research that claims most trucks in New York and California could be replaced by electric rigs right now because they’re either medium-duty or short-distance machines. We agree with that point. 

She also mentions an improvement in driver comfort, which will be a huge selling point to owner-operators and hotshots with flatbeds. These individuals work on a case-by-case basis, getting their loads through freight brokers, and they have a great deal of control over which loads they’ll haul and for what price. 

For these truckers, their berth is both a home and an office. We can see how smoother, quieter electric trucks will be appealing, especially since they can refuse a load if no charging stations exist between points A and B.

But for major organizations, the ones tasked with hauling your hazardous materials, groceries, and oversized loads through the mountains and deserts, it will be a few more years before they’re ready to make the switch. 

But Wait…Big Rigs means more Precious Metals:

It seems that proponents of more EV’s seem to forget about the incoming shortages of rare-earth and precious metals to fuel this energy transition.

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