Electric Semi-Trucks: Good, Bad, or Both?

Commercial trucks transport about 72.2% of the nation’s freight, to the tune of approximately 10.93 billion tons. In 2021, there were 4.06 million Class 8 trucks in operation in the United States. Whether we drive these immense vehicles (Class 8 trucks have gross vehicle weights of more than 33,000 pounds) or share the road with them, we rely on them to transport most of the goods we use every single day.

But is the reign of fuel-powered trucks coming to an end?

Growing concerns over emissions have led to the development of electric semi-trucks. These battery-operated vehicles are designed to haul heavy loads and travel longer distances than other electric vehicles.

In just one day, a fuel-powered truck may be on the road for up to 11 hours, producing harmful emissions all the while. According to a study by researchers at UCLA and UC Berkeley, heavy-duty trucks make up just 11% of vehicles on America’s roadways but account for nearly half of motor vehicle carbon emissions and 71% of particulate emissions that can lead to premature death. A carrier that replaces just one fuel-powered semi with an electric truck would have the same impact as replacing more than a dozen fuel-powered sedans.

Electric semis are already on the market, including Freightliner’s eCascadia, Volvo’s VNR Electric, and Tesla’s Semi. Tesla delivered its first Semi trucks to PepsiCo on December 1, 2022, after considerable delays tied to global supply chain shortages. The company first unveiled its Semi prototype back in 2017.

While most people and truckers have neither seen nor driven an electric semi-truck yet, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that battery-electric trucks will account for about 31% of carriers by 2050.

The electric truck is poised to change the industry as we know it—but what impact will that have on motorists? Communities? Truckers? The environment?

Benefits of Electric Semi-Trucks & Tractor-Trailers

Zero Emissions

Perhaps the greatest advantage of replacing fuel-powered trucks with electric semis will be the reduction in emissions. According to recent research by the American Lung Association, transitioning to zero-emission trucks and power could prevent 66,800 premature deaths, 1.75 million asthma attacks, and 8.5 million lost workdays by 2050. And that’s just in counties with major truck routes.

Then there’s the dramatic reduction in greenhouse gases that would come with a trucking industry that has transitioned to electric vehicles. Even with just less than one-third of the industry going electric, the reduction in emissions would help to slow global warming and climate change. Air quality and public health would benefit as well.

Improved Safety & Drivability

Tractor-trailers may weigh up to 80,000 pounds when fully loaded. These immense vehicles are tough to operate and require drivers who have received special training and are licensed to operate commercial vehicles. The companies that are manufacturing electric semi-trucks are putting safety first, including built-in features that make the vehicles easier to operate and accident-avoidance technology that can prevent collisions from happening in the first place.

The eCascadia, for example, has a feature called Active Side Guard Assist (ASGA), which prevents the vehicle from turning right if there is a cyclist or pedestrian in the way. It also has lane assist and other standard safety features that can help operators avoid collisions.

Volvo’s VNR Electric comes with features such as Active Driver Assist, a forward collision avoidance technology, and Active Grip Control, which improves maneuverability and control in slippery conditions, including gravel or weather-related loss of traction.

The Tesla Semi touts a safety feature that can prevent jackknifing, one of the most dangerous types of trucking accidents. This happens when the cab turns one way and the trailer turns another, throwing the vehicle off balance and putting it at risk of flipping onto its side and cutting across lanes, destroying everything in its path. Because the Tesla Semi’s electric drivetrain includes individual motors for each wheel, the truck can actually sense weight distribution and accelerate or brake accordingly—automatically correcting and preventing the jackknife from occurring. All of this happens without driver intervention.

Electric semi-trucks also use a process called regenerative braking, using the truck’s own motor to slow down and pump power back into the battery at the same time. In addition to conserving energy, this process acts as a safety measure because drivers will not have to downshift when driving down long and/or steep grades. They may not even need to use the truck’s brakes at all, which adds up to less wear and tear and less of a chance of brakes overheating on long hauls.

Electric trucks also do not have multi-geared transmissions like their diesel counterparts, which can make them easier to drive.

Less Noise

The standard diesel engine in a commercial truck is loud, producing about 100 decibels (dB) of noise. In comparison, a quiet room inside a home may measure between 25-30dB. Most houses range at about 40dB. For truck operators, employees at worksites where large trucks are present, and people living in communities where trucks frequent streets and highways, the noise can seem deafening.

According to the CDC, noise above 70dB, when prolonged, can cause some damage to your hearing. Noise above 120dB can cause immediate hearing damage. Even 50 feet from a highway, where traffic noise may range from 70-80db, people may experience increased heart rates and may have trouble communicating or concentrating.

Diesel-powered trucks are typically the loudest vehicles on the road. Electric vehicles, on the other hand, make very little sound. Electric cars were actually considered too quiet, leading to a federal law, Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 141, which passed in 2020 mandating that electric vehicles make enough noise to alert pedestrians and cyclists of their presence. Electric semi-trucks, which require more power to operate than smaller, passenger vehicles, are naturally louder—but they are still significantly quieter than fuel-powered trucks.

In a video shared on Reddit, a Tesla Semi can be seen and heard leaving the company’s office in Draper, Utah. The truck sounds nothing like a typical tractor-trailer. As it accelerates, it sounds much quieter and more like a sports car than an 80,000-pound vehicle.

Lower Operating Cost

The upfront cost of purchasing an electric big rig is more than a regular semi, depending on the make and model. However, this cost could be offset by lower operating and maintenance costs. According to a 2021 study by researchers at Berkeley Lab, Class 8 electric trucks have a cost of ownership that is 13% lower than diesel models, which can add up to about $200,000 over the life of the truck.

Much of this can be attributed to eliminating the cost of diesel fuel, but electric semi-trucks generally require less maintenance as well. Regenerative braking and fewer heavy components and gears are behind reduced maintenance costs. What’s more, some states offer incentives to those individuals and companies that purchase and use electric trucks.

More Power, Less Charging Time

A fully loaded Tesla Semi can go from 0 to 60 mph in 20 seconds, according to the company’s website. The eCascadia can recharge from 0 to 80% in just 90 minutes if equipped with a certain battery back. Electric semis are anticipated to accelerate faster than traditional trucks, and although they may not be able to go as far as a diesel truck on a tank of gas (which can travel about 2,000 miles on a 300-gallon tank), shorter charging times and enough charging stations could remove that obstacle.

So, What’s the Catch?

Electric semi-trucks produce no emissions and offer a quiet, clean, and efficient way to transport goods. There has to be a downside, right? As of right now, many of these disadvantages should lessen over time.

Today's electric semi-trucks cannot go as far as diesel trucks without recharging. The Tesla Semi is supposed to be able to go 500 miles on a single charge, but a diesel truck can travel 4 times that on a full tank of gas. Until charging stations are readily available across the country, this may mean that their initial application will be limited to shorter hauls, with centralized charging stations.

As Tesla already experienced with the Semi, there could be manufacturing delays associated with the specialized parts electric trucks require.

Finally, there is a higher upfront cost. For a single truck, that cost may not seem too extreme. For an entire fleet of vehicles, however, that could be a major obstacle for a carrier to overcome. Then again, lower operating costs could provide enough incentive for some trucking companies to take the plunge and go electric.

What Electric Semi-Trucks Mean to the Industry, Truckers & Consumers

Zero emissions. Improved safety. Less noise. The potential benefits of electric semi-trucks are considerable, but like most new technological advancements, they are not all good or all bad. They’re a combination of the two, with lots of promising applications and possibilities as well as downsides that must be considered and addressed. With the right approach, they could bring remarkable improvements to truckers, communities, and the environment. We look forward to seeing what the future brings.

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