Work trucks account for only 4 percent of the vehicles on the road but are responsible for 25 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from the nation’s transportation sector. Unlike private cars that sit idle most of the time, those trucks may be in use most of the work day. That’s why increasing the number of electric trucks is so important to reducing transportation emissions in the US.
Businesses are adding more electric trucks to their fleets for two main reasons. First, they may be committed to reducing climate warming emissions from their operations to meet the expectations of their customers. Second, electric trucks have a lower total cost of ownership, which appeals strongly to fleet operators who calculate their costs down to the tenth of a cent per mile.
Now, to be clear, we are talking about electric trucks used for delivery vans or by tradespeople, the kinds of vehicles that are used 100 miles a day or less and have a dedicated place where they can charge when not in use. We aren’t talking about Class 8 tractors that haul semi-trailers on long journeys. The charging infrastructure for such heavy duty trucks is simply not ready yet but will be relatively soon as America transitions away from reliance on the diesel engine over the next 10 to 15 years.
Frito-Lay Pivots To Electric Trucks
One company that is embracing electric trucks is Frito-Lay, the snack food company owned by PepsiCo. In California, Frito-Lay is operating some of the first Tesla Semi electric tractors to distribute products throughout the Southwest. In Queens, New York, the company is using a fleet of 40 Ford e-Transit vans to keep the shelves at grocery stores and bodegas in and around New York City stocked with potato chips and Cheetos.
Gary LaBush is a driver for Frito-Lay in Queens. He tells the Washington Post he remembers the first time he sat behind the wheel of a Ford e-Transit delivery truck. Like most first time EV truck drivers, he wondered if the vehicle was actually on. “I was like, ‘What’s going on?’” he recalled. “There was no noise and no fumes.”
Now, he trains other drivers how to operate the company’s delivery trucks. LaBush has worked at the company for over two decades. He said he would struggle if he had to return to driving a gasoline powered van. “I wouldn’t want to do it,” he said. “After being in this — it’s just night and day.”
LaBush belongs to a small but growing group of commercial medium to heavy duty truck drivers who use electric trucks. These drivers — many of whom operate local or regional routes that don’t require hundreds of miles on the road each day — generally welcome the transition to electric trucks. They praise their handling, acceleration, smoothness, and quiet operation.
Let’s Do Electric Avenue
Drivers say they love driving electric trucks. Marty Boots, who drives for Schneider in South El Monte, California tells the Washington Post he appreciates the lightness and the smoothness of his Freightliner eCascadia tractor. “Diesel was like a college wrestler,” he said. “And the electric is like a ballet dancer.”
Like LaBush, he also now trains other drivers on how to optimize the battery in the electric trucks. Some were hesitant at first but once they experienced driving electric, they never wanted to go back to the old ways. “You get back into diesel and it’s like, ‘What’s wrong with this thing?’” Boots said. “Why is it making so much noise? Why is it so hard to steer?”
“Everyone who has had an EV has no aspirations to go back to diesel at this point,” said Khari Burton, who drives an electric Volvo VNR in the Los Angeles area for transport company IMC. “We talk about it and it’s all positivity. I really enjoy the smoothness … and just the quietness as well.”
Mike Roeth, the executive director of the North American Council for Freight Efficiency, said many drivers have reported that the new vehicles are easier on their bodies, thanks to both less rocking of the cab, better steering, and the quietness of the drivetrain “Part of my hypothesis is that it will help truck driver retention,” he said. “We’re seeing people who would retire driving a diesel truck now working more years with an electric truck.”
Sales Of Electric Trucks Are Growing
According to the Environmental Defense Fund, there are 12.2 million trucks of various kinds — ranging from Class 2B to Class 8 — on the road in America at present. Only 13,000 of them are electric trucks, which seems like a paltry amount, but take heart, EV fans. 10,000 of those trucks were placed in service in 2023 — up from 2,000 the year before.
Amazon has ordered and deployed thousands of electric delivery vans made by Rivian and says it has electric trucks operating in 1,800 cities in the United States. FedEx has electric trucks rolling through the streets of Los Angeles. The logistics company Schneider has dozens of Class 8 electric semi-trucks delivering loads throughout Southern California.
Most of the electric trucks on the road today are doing local or regional routes, which are easier to manage with a truck that gets only up to 250 miles of range. “We’re building from areas that have a fairly defined route,” said Jason Mathers, associate vice president of the zero emissions truck initiative for the Environmental Defense Fund. “Or within a fairly defined geography. They come back to the same place every night.”
The Ford e-Transit van Gary LaBush drives has an estimated range of 108 miles but only needs to be charged once or twice a week. “We usually don’t let it go below 50 percent,” he explained. The deliveries Marty Boots does for Schneider are more variable. On most days, if his mileage exceeds 200 miles or so, he can remain in one truck. Other times, he will drop the trailer and switch in another fully charged truck if he needs longer range for the day.
Charging and range are the primary reasons some companies are hesitant to go electric — or have found the transition challenging. Jim Gillis, the president of the Pacific region for IMC, said his team has found that their six EV trucks are best suited for trips less than 25 miles. “Coming from the port to our warehouse, generally that driver can enjoy three to four trips before we have to get that charged,” Gillis said.
But Gillis worries that the transition isn’t ready for prime time. Volvo has recalled the trucks six times, causing them to rotate out of commission and forcing drivers back into diesel temporarily. “We’re not seeing a ton of qualified technicians in the shops,” Gillis said. “You’re paying a penalty when you have a truck that goes into the shop for three weeks.” The company is planning to introduce a number of hydrogen trucks to balance out their electric ones.
Trucking advocates say electric trucks have a long way to go before they can take on longer routes. “If you’re running very local, very short mileage, there may be a vehicle that can do that type of route,” said Mike Tunnell, the executive director of environmental affairs for the American Trucking Association. “But for the average haul of 400 miles, there’s just nothing that’s really practical today.”
Some truck companies say they need further incentives to push the industry into the next phase and help getting the required electricity and permits to install charging infrastructure. While trucks can sometimes charge on public fast chargers, many of those fast chargers aren’t set up to accommodate something as large as a Class 8 tractor.
In almost all cases, the drivers who are behind the wheel of electric trucks today feel that they are on the leading edge of an important transformation. “I want to be happy that I started it,” LaBush said, “for the young kids growing up and the next generation.”
But some companies and trucking associations worry this shift, spurred in part by a California law mandating a switch to electric or emissions-free trucks by 2042, is happening too fast. While electric trucks might work well in some cases, they argue the upfront costs of the vehicles and their charging infrastructure are often too heavy a lift.
But new technology is a process, not an event. Automobiles did not replace horses overnight and not everyone bought their first iPhone in 2007. Decarbonizing the environment will require a lot of heavy lifting. Yet if humans are to survive on Earth, we have to make the effort. Extinction is not a realistic alternative.