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Autonomous Vehicles

The Problems That Electric Semis Can & Can’t Solve

As electric trucks trickle into the market and we get closer and closer to long-haul models like the Tesla Semi, it’s becoming easier and easier to see how an electric truck can benefit truck drivers and their owners. But at the same time, we need to take a more holistic look at the trucking industry and make sure we’re not just electrifying the demise of truckers.

Problems Electric Trucks Can & Will Solve

I’ve had family members work in the industry, and they’ve driven local, regional, and even cross-country routes. There’s always a need for people with a commercial driver’s license (CDL), as much of what we use in the United States is moved by truck. Why? Because the convenience of moving good and components straight from source to destination gives everyone a huge economic advantage. It enables the popular and efficient “just in time” production model, even if that can be problematic in other ways.

But being a truck driver has some big drawbacks.

One is that long-haul drivers sleep in their trucks. Have you ever noticed how big the cabs of trucks are on the interstate? That’s because the back of the truck (nearly everything behind the doors) is like a little RV, including a bed that the driver can sleep in. But unless the truck is running and idling, that cab doesn’t give the driver amenities like air conditioning or heat. With an increasing number of jurisdictions banning idling, this leaves many drivers unable to stay cool in the summer or warm in the winter. In some climates, this is a life-risking proposition.

Some of the cooler trucking companies and owner-operators do have solutions to this. If you add a larger bank of lithium batteries, an efficient 12-volt air conditioner, an electric blanket, and maybe some solar panels, you can make sleeping in a truck comfortable and safe without harmful emissions. But the required batteries and air conditioning units can cost as much as $10,000.

However, electric trucks will be able to solve that problem. If drivers can time their sleeping breaks with charging time, the added load of heating or air conditioning the sleeper will be minimal compared to what it takes to charge the truck up. When drivers get stuck waiting for loading or unloading, they’ll have a comfortable place to take a break and catch up on sleep without using that much range.

Autonomous vehicles can help solve another problem: driver fatigue. If they can get trucks to the point where a driver is only needed as a backup driver and to make sure millions of dollars worth of goods has someone keeping an eye on it, the job would be a lot less stressful. Problems with tired drivers being forced to continue driving or lose their jobs would largely go away. It could even become something that remote workers in other fields do as a rolling “side hustle” if the systems are good enough to not need constant human supervision (Level 3 or higher autonomy).

For owner-operators, not having to purchase expensive diesel fuel would be another huge advantage, but that’s something both CleanTechnica and companies working on electric trucks have covered extensively, so I won’t rehash that.

The Problems Electric Trucks Can’t Solve On Their Own

Something we’re learning is that clean technology is like any other technology. It can be an important part of a just and prosperous future, or it can be part of a dystopian nightmare. Or, it can be like it is now, benefiting some people and being part of the enslavement or mistreatment of others (especially in mining). We have to understand that electric trucks are better, but they don’t guarantee that driving electric trucks will be a better experience.

Today, there’s a huge shortage of truck drivers, but it’s not because of the Coronavirus, government intervention in the economy, or because young people are lazy and don’t want to drive trucks like their boomer relatives. A recent clip from Last Week Tonight shows us what a nightmare being a truck driver can be (more after the video):

One of the biggest problems is compensation. Drivers getting paid by the mile and then getting forced to sit still waiting for something to be loaded or unloaded without pay is a huge problem. It won’t matter whether they’re using an electric truck or one burning diesel if something doesn’t happen to fix the pay structure and make it fair for drivers. Worse, many drivers are misclassified as contractors, and end up making little or nothing because the trucking company rips them off. Even for local and last-mile driving, this is a huge problem with deadly consequences.

The problem of fatigue might get even worse if electric trucks proliferate without a decent Level 3 or Level 4 autonomous system. They’re already forced by employers and dispatchers to keep working when tired and try to restrict sleep to mandated sleep time. Adding in charging breaks could create a situation where short-sighted trucking companies force drivers to work on a schedule with broken up sleep to try to combine charging stops and sleep under the current regulations.

Without revised federal rules that ensure adequate sleep and no superhuman demands on drivers, this problem will only continue or get worse with electric long-haul trucks.

How Government & Manufacturers Can Fix This

Regulation reform is one big thing that’s rather obvious. Requiring fair pay, decent and safe working conditions, and adequate break time is essential. Making sure trucking companies can’t exploit the rules and use them against drivers is also essential. But we also need to be looking for ways manufacturers can help improve the situation and make the transition to electric a good thing for drivers.

We’re already seeing driver monitoring systems in Level 2 autonomous vehicles. These cameras can be set up to see if a driver isn’t paying attention, getting drowsy, or doing other such things. Just including that technology on trucks and collecting that data would make it very difficult to claim that drivers are safe when they’re really being pushed past their limits. In reality, regulation needs to be flexible and tailored to the driver’s safety and not a one-size-fits-all situation that doesn’t even fit most.

If regulators required companies to give drivers breaks when they show signs of fatigue and give them pay that allows them to financially be able to take those breaks, the number of trucking-related deaths on the road would fall. When you consider that the people in lighter vehicles are more likely to suffer death than the trucker, it’s really a problem that these companies shouldn’t be pushing at the expense of our lives.

Featured image by Tesla.

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Written By

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.


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