Study: Electricity Moves Heavy Loads Cheaper Even When Diesel Prices Are Low

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At the Tesla Semi unveiling in 2017, Elon Musk announced that the all-electric truck would have a range of up to 500 miles on a single charge and be able to carry up to 81,000 lb. He also revealed that the Semi would be equipped with active safety features, a spacious interior designed for maximum visibility, and three motors. Since then, Tesla has released limited numbers of the Semi into service with one recall and many speculations about its performance.

One of the big selling points was that the Semi would be cheaper than comparable diesel trucks. Lower fuel costs are obvious, but lower maintenance costs, better efficiency, regenerative braking, and no need to comply with emissions regulations all add up. The cost of buying the actual truck is higher, but all of those other factors are supposed to add up to lower overall costs.

Many people have tested this on a smaller scale with light-duty EVs. While EVs tend to be more expensive to buy than a comparable ICE vehicle, the overall costs are typically lower after you factor in everything from fuel costs to oil changes. This is especially true if you pay a mechanic for your automotive work instead of doing it yourself as much as possible. So, it only makes sense that the same would be true for larger vehicles, like semi trucks.

But this is an assumption that hasn’t been through much in the way of real-world testing. There are a few companies running Tesla Semis, and many other companies are running electric trucks from other manufacturers, but there’s still not much data out there.

Fortunately, a recent study at a prominent university tackled this, and they found that electric trucks moving heavy loads are indeed cheaper than diesel to own and operate. Scientists at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden have demonstrated that operating heavy goods vehicles using electricity can be more cost-effective than using diesel, despite prior assertions in the industry against this.

“I myself am surprised by the results and hope that more haulage companies and heavy goods vehicle manufacturers will be willing to invest in electrification now that we have shown that it can be cost-effective,” says Johannes Karlsson, doctoral student in automatic control engineering at Chalmers.

The shift from fossil-fueled to electric vehicles has predominantly been observed in lighter vehicles, including private cars and delivery vans. However, the adoption of electric power for long-distance heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) has been sluggish due to the belief that large batteries would consume significant load capacity, rendering electric operation unprofitable. Nonetheless, researchers at Chalmers University of Technology have discovered that electricity can actually serve as a more cost-effective alternative to diesel, even for heavy goods vehicles.

“We have looked at a scenario where heavy goods vehicles drive the 553 kilometres between Helsingborg and Stockholm in Sweden. We have compared two different battery sizes and two possible prices for fast charging. Our conclusion is that it seems possible to electrify this type of vehicle in a cost-effective way,” says Johannes Karlsson.

Real-World Data

In the study, researchers developed a model using data from an actual haulage company located in Helsingborg. This town was selected because it represents typical tasks and operating conditions for long-distance haulage firms in that region of Sweden. The larger battery required recharging only at the company’s depots, although it consumed more load capacity. On the other hand, the smaller battery demanded quick charging during transit but had a lesser impact on load capacity. The findings indicated that operating on electricity was economically beneficial for the haulage company examined in the study.

“With the right battery size, it should be possible in many cases to electrify heavy goods vehicles so that the cost is the same or lower than if the they were powered by a diesel engine. The best size of battery is determined by whether light loads are being transported, such as parcels or vegetables, or heavy loads, such as drinks or timber. Other important factors that influence the choice of battery size are driving patterns and the price of fast charging. A realistic future scenario is that HGVs will have different battery sizes,” says Johannes Karlsson.

The investment in batteries and charging equipment entails expenses. In a previous study, researchers demonstrated that to justify the investment, the battery of an electric HGV must undergo at least 1,400 charge and discharge cycles, a threshold that most commercial vehicles would actually surpass during their lifespan.

In the study, diesel prices were set at €1.20 per liter, while fast charging costs were either €0.17 or €0.40 per kilowatt-hour (excluding VAT). The researchers assumed that other expenses, such as maintenance, would be the same for HGVs regardless of whether they operated on electricity or diesel.

Despite assuming a low diesel price, the research concluded that electrifying a haulage company’s fleet of HGVs is profitable, except for vehicles that primarily load up to their maximum allowed weight.

The study, titled “Case Study of Cost-Effective Electrification of Long-Distance Line-Haul Trucks,” was published in the journal Energies and authored by Johannes Karlsson and Anders Grauers, both researchers at Chalmers University of Technology.

This research was conducted in collaboration with the Swedish Transport Administration and Volvo Trucks, and was financed by the Swedish Transport Administration through the Triple F research and innovation program.

It’s worth nothing that research like that conducted by Johannes Karlsson and his colleague Anders Grauers is rare. Previously, the electrification of heavy goods vehicles primarily focused on scenarios where HGVs operate and charge within a limited area, such as a port. The Chalmers researchers now anticipate that their findings will hasten the shift from diesel to electric power in heavy goods vehicle transportation.

“We have shown that a heavy goods vehicle fleet can be electrified in a cost-effective way. This should lead to companies having the incentive to invest in the transition. Financial incentives usually mean that changes can be made quickly, and our study is realistic for many transport operations,” says Anders Grauers, Associate Professor at the Department of Electrical Engineering at Chalmers.

They Seemed To Give Diesel The Benefit Of The Doubt

From what I could see, diesel prices were intentionally set low, so there’s a lot of room for further study. During times of high fuel prices (which seems to be often), electric gets even more advantage. So, somebody needs to do this again using American companies, perhaps even those using the Tesla Semi!

Featured image provided by Chalmers University of Technology.

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Jennifer Sensiba

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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