Two pieces of news crossed my desk in the past couple of days, one a great piece of news about the current reality of batteries for transportation, and the other a bravura performance by Andrew Boyle, first vice chair of the American Trucking Associations (ATA) in front of Congress, where he spouted remarkably inaccurate things about electric trucks while apparently managing never to mention climate change in any way, shape, or form.
The first piece of news invalidates 50% of Boyle’s statements, so let’s start there. CATL, a battery firm which owns about 34% of global market share, just announced a 500 Watt-hour per kilogram (Wh/kg) battery for aviation use cases, and that it would be providing an automotive variant this year as well. For context, the Panasonic batteries that have dominated Teslas in the past few years are 269 Wh/kg, while the new, easier to manufacture and assemble 4680 batteries run at 244 Wh/kg.
That’s about double the energy density by mass. The Tesla Semi has a 500-mile range, and the ones delivered to Pepsi have been running 500 miles with chips and at least 400 miles with full loads of Pepsi. The weight of load doesn’t kill semi-tractor performance that much, with a full 80,000-pound gross vehicle weight on the road representing over 20 tons of freight only reducing fuel efficiency about 20% over a very light load, in Oak Ridge National Laboratory testing in 2011. On flattish terrain, the Tesla Semi likely can do 500 miles fully loaded, and it’s assumed to be using the Panasonic batteries with 269 Wh/kg energy density. With the CATL batteries, its range will likely be over 900 miles.
CATL has delivered what it promises when it promises it, and it’s delivering over a third of batteries used today. This isn’t a VC-backed hype fest, this is the world’s biggest manufacturer and credible source delivering massively more energy density. And battery energy density isn’t at end game either. There’s a tremendous amount of work being done in the space globally, so we’ll see 600, 700, and 800 Wh/kg batteries soon enough.
So what claims did Boyle make? Well, the first is that current battery-electric semi trucks have only 150-330 miles of range. This is remarkable when the Tesla Semi is already delivering vastly more than this. Is Boyle ignorant of the Tesla Semi’s actual range in service with Pepsi? Or is he delivering stale or simply misleading data to Congress?
Next, he claims that big semi trucks would require two 8,000-pound battery packs, which is to say 7,273 kg. That’s an amazing number. As a ratio to the 625 kg 100 kWh battery pack in a long-range Tesla, that means he thinks big trucks require 1.2 MWh of batteries to operate. How much does the Tesla Semi battery have to achieve 500 miles of range? 850 kWh, much smaller. much smaller. The CATL battery would provide about 1,000 miles of range for the same weight and volume. Even taking into account Boyle’s claim of 1,200 miles of range for a modern diesel with Tesla’s current energy density you wouldn’t get to the weight Boyle claims.
Another claim Boyle made is that trucks would take ten hours to charge. Given that the Tesla Semi with the Megacharger can recover 70% of charge in 30 minutes, it’s also hyperbolic on Boyle’s part to claim that charging will take that long.
Boyle also claimed that battery-electric trucks would cost $300,000 more than new diesel semis. A mid-market semi costs $150,000, while the latest news from Tesla’s delivered trucks indicate that they cost $250,000. That’s a $100,000 difference, which isn’t chicken feed, but is, once again much, much lower than Boyle’s claims.
Finally, Boyle claimed that electric trucks couldn’t get cheaper, which is a remarkable statement. Why? Well, he misrepresented how Wright’s Law or the experience curve works, and even misnamed it. He referenced Moore’s Law, which is about computing and has little to do with manufactured objects getting 20% to 27% cheaper with every doubling of manufacturing volume. The expensive part about electric trucks these days are the batteries, not the rest of the truck. And trucks will share batteries with cars, ships, trains, and aircraft, so every doubling of battery manufacturing for transportation use cases will cause the price of batteries for trucks to drop. Boyle’s assertion, or perhaps pretense, is that with only a few hundred thousand trucks every year, the efficiency curve didn’t apply.
It’s difficult to take Boyle seriously when he gets so many things so wrong in front of Congress. And Congress people seemed to think he was an authority, as opposed to a source of significant disinformation.
Before articulating the one thing he gets somewhat right, let’s take the thing he apparently ignored in his statements, answers, and the summary article on the ATA website — climate change. Per the EPA’s recent proposed Phase 3 rules for trucking, transportation as a whole is 27% of total US greenhouse gas emissions, and heavy duty Class 8 trucks represent a quarter of that. Yes, big rigs produce about 7% of total US climate change-causing CO2 emissions. That’s a big wedge. Under the Phase 2 rules, semis have already become more efficient, and average about 7.24 miles per gallon of diesel, up from under 6 several years ago. The best maintained, efficiency fitted and operated trucks are over 10 miles per gallon, and 9 miles per gallon is easily achievable.
In fact, the Phase 3 emissions standards for the target year of 2032 amount to exactly that, 9 miles per gallon, which represents only a 19% efficiency gain. Contextually, Class 8 trucks run about 250 billion miles every year in the US, at 9 miles per gallon and 8.89 kg of CO2 per gallon of diesel, that’s an allowance of 250 million tons of CO2 per year for trucking. Not much of a win, is it? Yet this is what the ATA is complaining about outside of Boyle’s Congressional hyperbole. At least that statement acknowledges greenhouse gas emissions, and the ATA does have a committee for climate change.
So, the Phase 3 proposals are pretty milquetoast, with the trucking industry getting a decade to bolt on more aerodynamics, put side shields between wheels for more efficient operation, incent truck drivers to slow down and drive more smoothly, and improve the maintenance of their trucks. These are all incredibly reasonable activities, and the ATA should be thanking the EPA for this achievable goal. Instead, in its formal statement, it makes it clear that they think draconian measures are being foisted on them without discussion, even though the Phase 3 rules are proposals with lots of public input to come.
So why was Boyle making stuff up about electric trucks in front of Congress, where as an industry professional and a guy who is co-president of a trucking concern with around 90 trucks and tens of millions in revenue he should have been somewhat accurate? Well, that’s all about California’s newish rules for Class 8 trucks.
What are they? Back in September of 2022, California announced that all new trucks sold in the state in 2040 and onward would have to be zero emission. Further, by 2042, all fleets operating in California would have to be zero-emission. So 20 years from now, all current diesel trucks operating in California have to have big batteries. And whither goest California, so goest the US, as California’s GPD is 12% of the entire country’s. Trucking firms like Boyle’s small firm in Massachusetts might be able to ignore California’s rules, but big national firms like J.B. Hunt with its 12,000 trucks and 100,000 trailers won’t be able to.
Is this achievable? Well, with the Tesla Semi running 500 miles with 81,000 lb gross vehicle weight, and CATL batteries available this year almost doubling that, there’s no doubt that trucking firms can start buying electric vehicles from Tesla and other vendors this year, and every year replace a few percent of their fleets with battery electric vehicles, and that by 2040, equivalent performance 1,200-mile range Class 8 trucks will be present and cheap. This isn’t even a stretch goal.
However, I did give Boyle one point, even though he vastly overstates it. That point is the current state of the US distribution grids for electricity where semi trucks will need to charge up. Delivering a MWh to a truck in 30 minutes and 5 MWh to five trucks simultaneously is going to be a challenge in the hinterlands of the US. However, between picking targets of major interstate routes for electric charging corridors first, beefing up the grids for those corridors, and intelligent use of increasingly cheap batteries to buffer truck draw, this isn’t exactly a stretch target either.
Will every podunk place an electric semi has to deliver to have sufficient juice to charge it? No, of course not. But those places don’t have to be able to fill up big rigs with diesel right now either. Apps like Trucker Path will add megachargers to their diesel stations that can fit semis next to pumps. With 1,000 miles of range an easy target, it’s not like trucks will have to refuel every time they make a delivery.
It’s clear that the trucking industry in the US is doing what many major sectors are doing, trying to make climate action someone else’s problem. Well, at 7% of US CO2 emissions, they are far too big a wedge to leave until last. Thankfully, there’s an upside for them. As I pointed out recently when looking at US rail which is refusing to electrify, something the rest of the world is doing rapidly, trucking will electrify, their operating costs will plummet, and meanwhile rail will be forced into higher priced biofuels and synthetic fuels. As a result, the weird overuse of trucks for freight compared to rail in the US will just increase. Electrification of trucking is an amazing strategic advantage, but you’d never know it listening to the American Trucking Association.
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