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Forget Autonomous Cars, Autonomous Long Haul Trucking Is The Key To Real Emissions Reductions

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Medium and heavy duty trucks account for about 7% of overall US emissions. Experts have turned their focus to battery-electric vehicles as the most efficient and cost-effective means of reducing trucking emissions. The long haul trucking dream is a bit difficult to translate to reality, however. What’s the equation that will take their large size and the heavy weight of batteries to move heavy cargoes long distances? Where is the necessary fast charging infrastructure coming from?

Can battery-electric vehicles revolutionize long haul trucking?

To understand the current state of electric trucking in North America, it’s important to isolate areas going well and those where the industry is challenged. There’s only one way to know if electric long haul trucks can really replace diesel-fueled trucks: they need to be tested on real roads in fully loaded conditions.

So the North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE) and RMI launched the Run on Less – Electric Depot. They hoped to bring about better and faster solutions for the electric long haul trucking industry. Data from the 10 fleet depots that participated has been used to track key metrics of the trucks and the chargers, and the experiment produced valuable data.

Long haul trucking, it seems, is a good match for autonomous driving.

Since September 11, Run on Less — Electric Depot data has been collected from 22 trucks operating out of 10 fleet depots. “The data collection is going well. We used this data along with work we completed prior to the Run to identify the current state of electric trucking and areas where we can expedite improvements to the known challenges,” says Mike Roeth, NACFE’s executive director.

The Run on Less — Electric Depot data indicates that the latest electric medium duty and heavy duty trucks are increasingly ready to handle a lot of North America’s freight-hauling needs.

Here is some of the Run on Less — Electric Depot data:

  • Fleets along with their utilities and engineering, procurement and construction partners are delivering big power — up to 5 MWs — to these depots as well as to charging-as-a-service sites, like WattEV.
  • There is a significant amount of electricity needed for these large heavy-duty trucks. It is predicted that Scheider’s South El Monte depot would use 40.2 MWh/day if it were 100% electric, the highest projected daily energy demand we noted.
  • The Tesla Semis at PepsiCo’s Sacramento Beverages depot have completed 384 miles on a single charge and 806 miles in a single 24-hour day, enabled by fast 750 kW charging.
  • Other Class 8 tractors are demonstrating range at double that of the trucks that took part in Run on Less – Electric in 2021.
  • There is better efficiency, including optimizing regenerative braking and return-to-base charging during single driver shifts. This has occurred consistently at OK Produce, Penske, Performance Team, PepsiCo, and Schneider.

Fleet depots can manage depleted and charged-up trucks in a systematic way, according to Roeth. Data from the New York site and other shorter haul depots in California indicated to Roeth that ​“small depots are electrifiable now.” He concludes that a battery electric truck can provide the same results as a diesel truck.

The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) includes tax credits that can help out with up to 30% of the cost of commercial EVs and charging equipment to buyers. Roeth adds that electric trucks are quite a bit more comfortable and less stressful for drivers to operate, with smoother acceleration without the halts and jerks typical of heavy vehicle transmissions. ​“We’re pretty sure that drivers love these trucks, and fleets that have electric trucks will retain their drivers more than fleets that don’t,” he says. ​“The cost to hire or replace a truck driver is significant.”

Key points from the Run fall into 6 broad categories:

  • Small depots are ready for electrification now and electrification at large depots is becoming more possible.
  • There have been big improvements in trucks and chargers since Run on Less – Electric in 2021.
  • The industry needs cost and weight reductions to improve the total cost of ownership.
  • Range can be extended with multiple charges per shift at the depot and enroute.
  • It’s still taking too long for power delivery and infrastructure to be installed, which is driving portable/temporary charging.
  • The diversity, passion, and capability of the people involved is helping to scale the adoption of electric trucks.

The kind of performance data emerging from this month’s Run on Less — Electric Depot test runs suggest that electric trucks, even with the many challenges they face, are a viable and preferable option to diesel power.

A Case Study for Long Haul Trucking

Why is autonomous long haul trucking so appealing? It can reduce driver fatigue by up to 35%, save two or three liters of fuel for every 100 kilometers, and allow one driver to handle routes that previously needed two, as Inceptio Technology CEO Julian Ma told Bloomberg. Long, straight, one-way highways present significantly fewer obstacles like pedestrians, cyclists, and traffic lights than city roads. Customers like Nestle, Budweiser, and China Post are lining up to see if the Inceptio model will fit their needs.

A press release indicates that the Inceptio Autonomous Driving System has powered more than 40 million kilometers of accident-free trucking on China’s highways. Yes, the truck does the majority of the driving, but a human must be present and ready to take control.

Level 3 assisted driving from the Shanghai-based company incorporates a mix of radar, lidar and cameras, and in-cabin tech like hands-on steering wheel detection, vibrating seats, and voice reminders. The Inceptio driverless system has a 3D perception range of about 1,000 meters to ensure safe navigation; passenger cars anticipate only about 200 meters. The company’s TruckGPT technology translates driving conditions in real time into a natural language format for a Chat-GPT-like model to generate responses.

What challenges does the Inceptio long haul trucking face? The braking distance for a fully-laden truck traveling at 100 km/hour is more than 100 meters (328 feet), about two-and-a-half times longer than for cars. It also takes about 10 seconds for a semi-trailer to change lanes, compared to about 5 seconds for cars. At 100 km/hour, that’s a distance of about 280 meters.

What’s Inceptio’s business plan? It has partnered with Dongfeng Commercial Vehicle and China National Heavy Duty Truck Group as part of a development consortium and has received funding from several other companies. Inceptio sells the trucks and also charges a mileage-based subscription fee for the assisted-driving tech.

There are about 660 Inceptio trucks on the road, and the number is on track to double by the middle of next year.

Final Thoughts

The Tesla Semi is anxiously awaited, and Torc joined the Daimler Trucks family in 2019 to create highly automated semi-trucks to serve the needs of a growing freight economy. Many others are following these leads to reimagine long haul trucking.

Autonomous long haul trucking can reduce costs and carbon emissions, and Level 4 ready autonomous long haul trucking is the next hot thing moving out of R&D. Capable of driving itself in particular conditions and taking control of all safety-critical systems, an Automated Driving System (ADS) completes the entire dynamic driving task and then disengages quickly upon the driver’s command. Because the driver is no longer obliged to constantly monitor the system or perform non-driving-related tasks while operating the vehicle, the driver can extend personal durability.

The fun is in seeing the vision become a reality.


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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a Model Y as well as a Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.

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