Trucking companies enter era of electric vehicles
Electric trucks still have some shortcomings — including difficulties covering long distances, and the fact that it’s taken manufacturers as long as five years to deliver on some vehicle orders — but Virginia trucking companies are nonetheless forging ahead.
For instance, in addition to its 22 diesel trucks, Camrett Logistics in Wytheville received two electric semis in 2022 from Volvo Trucks’ plant in Dublin a year after ordering them, and is adding two more this year.
The trucks travel about 250 miles daily in short trips and charge overnight at the company’s facilities, says Cameron Peel, Camrett’s president and chief client officer. They get up to 275 miles per charge, and two configurations of the Volvo VNR trucks that debuted in 2022 allow batteries to fully charge in 90 minutes.
Despite the improvements, long hauls are still a way off, Peel says. “Electric trucks are nowhere near ready to go from Virginia to California.”
Richmond-based Estes Express Lines, the largest privately owned freight carrier in North America, added 12 electric trucks to its fleet in March. It’s a small number compared with the company’s 9,000 tractors that run on diesel, but electric vehicles are a significant part of Estes’ future, says Webb Estes, president and chief operating officer of the shipping company, which specializes in less-than-truckload (LTL) freight delivery over shorter distances than long-haul trucks.
Estes also has 300 electric forklifts — representing 10% of its fleet — as well as two electric straight trucks and an electric yard truck that uses a fifth wheel to move trailers within truck yards and warehouses.
There has been a three-year window between order and delivery, Estes notes, which makes it difficult to scale up the number of electric trucks. “Even if we wanted to try more electrics right now, it’s been over three years since we ordered these trucks, and manufacturers are still trying to learn the best way to build electric trucks.”
The company’s diesel trucks are already very fuel-efficient, able to travel 900-plus miles between fill-ups, so Estes is now testing how electric trucks fit in with the current fleet.
Shipping companies’ efforts to move toward electric vehicles are part of an overall national push to make the United States less dependent on fossil fuels. Although electric trucks cost about three times as much as diesel trucks, they offer long-term savings on fuel and maintenance.
In August 2022, President Joe Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act, which offers tax credits to business owners who purchase electric vehicles for work use, up to $40,000 for larger trucks. The act took effect in January.
“We are not doing this because we think these trucks are going to save us a bunch of money; we’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do,” Estes says. “And the best way to move the technology forward is to have good partners to test these things.”
Many businesses have instituted environmental sustainability goals that attract customers and talent, as well as lowering operation costs.
Kate Staples, director of electrification at Dominion Energy Inc., says the Fortune 500 utility’s electric grid is about 40% carbon-neutral.
“When you’re powering with gasoline or diesel, [the environment is] not going to get any cleaner,” she says, adding that electric trucks are exhaustless and noiseless. However, Staples notes, most companies are buying electric trucks only when an older truck is retired.
Also, upfront costs are significantly higher for electric trucks, even though companies save on fuel. A diesel truck costs about $110,000, while electric trucks are more than $300,000, although Staples expects initial costs to decrease as more users buy electric vehicles and governments create tax incentives.
Peel notes the main cost comes from electric vehicles’ lithium batteries, which run about $25,000 per 100-kilowatt pack, although he anticipates “huge advances in battery technology” that will drive vehicle purchase costs down.
“There’s still a cost to charge the truck,” however, Peel says. “The pro here is 100% sustainability … but we would love to start seeing some legislation to help with the cost,” such as tax breaks or sustainability grants.
In 10 years, Estes predicts, electric tractor-trailer manufacturers will significantly advance electric truck technology — including allowing for longer distance drives. “The industry is going to have to find a way to get a truck that can at least travel 600 miles electric to really kind of transform the conversation.”