Tesla semi on track 2021

Tesla offered up a sneak peek at the semi truck as it ran laps around a test track.

Tesla released new images of its battery-electric Semi this week, with the automaker expecting to bring it to market in the coming year. It will join a rapidly expanding fleet of commercial trucks being launched by both established and startup manufacturers.

Demand for battery-electric delivery trucks is growing rapidly, Amazon alone planning to purchase 100,000 vehicles from Rivian during the coming decade. It’s been less clear whether the market for medium- and long-haul trucks would gain traction, as well. But a new study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory should give proponents hope.

For most fleet managers, operating costs are the single most critical factor in the choice of a truck, and the new study shows that EVs already have a significant advantage there over conventional diesels. Even now, as the first long-haul models come to market, they have about a 13% ownership cost advantage over Class 8 diesels, according to the Berkeley Lab. The gap is expected to widen to as much as 50% by 2030, as the cost of batteries comes down.

“It is very exciting to see that heavy duty trucks can electrify much faster than what is commonly believed,” said Amol Phadke, lead author and staff scientist at Berkeley Lab. “Because electric trucks are already cheaper to own than diesel models, they are creating a financial motive for fleet and independent truck owners to demand more electric options from truck manufacturers.”

Tesla semi truck

Tesla officials expect production of the semi truck to begin later this year at Giga Texas.

Slow start, rapid acceleration

The EV truck market was slow to take off. As with battery-powered passenger vehicles, a variety of obstacles caught blame, including high costs, limited range and a lack of charging infrastructure. The new report finds that these and other challenges are beginning to be addressed.

The study was based on an average price of $135 per kilowatt-hour for a battery pack today. That’s a fraction of what it cost a decade ago and batteries are widely expected to drop by 50% or more by 2030.

At the same time, range is increasing, the researchers noted, and a truck capable of delivering 375 miles per charge should be able to handle the typical, 300-mile daily run for medium- and heavy-duty rigs. The accelerating rollout of public high-speed chargers enables still longer duty cycles.

EV trucks finally ready for prime time

There are additional advantages, including lower energy costs and substantial reductions in maintenance.

The new Freightliner eCascadia and eM2 semis that are part of the efforts to lead the move into battery-electric semi trucks.

As a result, a summary of the Berkeley report said, “electric trucks appear ready to meet the cost and performance demands for a substantial share of regional and long-haul trucking today.”

Those trucks currently available average about 13% lower to operate on a per-mile basis than comparable diesel rigs, the researchers concluded. That translates into less than a three-year payback for the higher up-front cost of an electric truck, with a total savings of $200,000 over the vehicle’s lifetime. By 2030, as the cost of batteries continues to fall and other issues are addressed, Berkeley’s study forecasts operating cost savings will climb to 50% compared to diesel trucks.

That doesn’t even account for some of the other benefits, the researchers pointing to other studies estimating that diesel trucks are responsible for $58 billion in air pollution damages each year.

A note of caution

Daimler AG’s Freightliner subsidiary delivered the first battery-electric medium-truck truck to Penske for testing.

The study did raise some caveats. Currently, battery trucks have, on average, about a 3% lower cargo capacity than diesels – something the study contends could be addressed by lightweighting vehicle design. Future EV trucks may also be powered by next-generation solid-state batteries expected to lower cost, increase range and reduce charging times.

There will need to be investments made to support the transition to electric power, the Berkeley Lab cautioned. The Biden administration has already laid out plans to address some of the challenges. Among other things, President Joe Biden campaigned on a pledge to have 500,000 public chargers in place by the end of the decade.

“The case for society to undertake the necessary investments to facilitate quicker adoption of electric trucks has never been stronger,” said Deepak Rajagopal, co-author and associate professor at the University of California Los Angeles. “But to realize the benefits we estimate, large-scale and coordinated investments are needed.”

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