Electric vehicles are one option for less-polluting big-rig trucks

Retailers are seeking ways to deliver climate goals
VP, CSR & Sustainability

Consumers are beginning to see battery-powered electric delivery trucks dropping packages at their homes. Battery electric vehicles might be appropriate for passenger cars and delivery trucks, but they might not be appropriate for every application any time soon.

A panel of experts discussed the future for the trucks that move products from manufacturers and ports to retail distribution centers and stores at the NRF Supply Chain 360 conference earlier this year. They included Paul Rosa, senior vice president for procurement and fleet planning at Penske Truck Leasing; Steve Mignardi, vice president for on-highway market development at Daimler Trucks North America; and Mike Roeth, executive director for the North American Council for Freight Efficiency and trucking lead for RMI.

The panel explained that the demand for less-polluting trucks with fewer climate-changing emissions will continue accelerating. They also agreed that large trucks in the future will likely be powered by a variety of fuels, including batteries. The type of fuel needed to power a truck, given current and near-future technologies, depends on a variety of factors including the size and weight of the load, the distance to be traveled, route predictability and the available fueling infrastructure.

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Moving tractor trailers around a confined area like at a port or distribution center is one type of need. Known as yard-tractors, these trucks remain within a central location and only need to move the trailers or even leave the property for very short distances. In this use-case scenario, a battery-powered electric vehicle can be very appropriate. It will be less polluting and likely less expensive over the life of the truck than traditional diesel-powered yard tractors.

Another use-case scenario is a truck transporting goods on relatively short, consistent and predictable routes between a small number of locations. In this scenario, a truck might only travel a few hundred miles between refueling stops. With a consistent route, any refueling infrastructure is only needed along a limited route, with refueling locations most likely located at predetermined delivery and pick-up destinations.

Under this scenario, trucks powered by liquid natural gas or hydrogen-powered fuel cells can be appropriate and less-polluting options. For short routes, it might even be possible to use battery-powered electric trucks, although the time needed to recharge the batteries fully will continue to be a limiting factor over the short run.

Long-haul trucks present significantly more complex challenges. They travel thousands of miles along routes that can change dramatically on very short notice: A truck carrying a load of products from a distribution center to a retail store might get diverted to another store location after departing the distribution center, if the other store suddenly has a greater need for the products.

The distances long-haul trucks must travel along less predictable and highly flexible routes means that any fuel used to power the trucks needs to be widely available and easily accessible across broad geographies. That makes transitioning away from diesel particularly challenging for this use-case scenario currently.

Further complicating the transition to less-polluting, alternatively fueled vehicles are the challenges and costs of maintaining a fleet of non-standardized vehicles. In a traditional truck fleet composed only of diesel-powered trucks, maintaining a supply of routinely needed truck parts for repairs and maintenance is fairly easy because the parts to maintain one truck typically fit all the other trucks.

That is not true in a fleet composed of vehicles powered by different fuels. The spare parts for a battery-powered truck are different than many of the parts for a vehicle powered by liquid natural gas, hydrogen-powered fuel cell or diesel. In addition, the training that mechanics need to properly maintain the trucks differs by vehicle type. The cost of maintaining the appropriate spare parts inventory and hiring mechanics with the relevant certifications makes it more expensive to manage a diverse fleet.

While the challenges are significant, the NRF Supply Chain 360 panelists agreed that demand for less-polluting vehicles that minimize climate change risks is growing. Many shippers are contacting their carriers, asking for their freight to be moved with these zero or near-zero options. The panelists also believe new technologies and scales of economy will make the transition easier over time.

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