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Electric Vehicles

Electric Semis Are Hitting the Road in California

The vehicles are part of a pilot project aimed at trouble-shooting EV trucking.

An EV truck.
Heatmap Illustration/JETSI, Getty Images

Deep in the Inland Empire, the vast sprawl of suburbia that extends eastward from Los Angeles, the battery-powered semi trucks are about to start their run. They navigate the congested freeways of L.A. County to the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, load or unload, and then complete the round trip to trucking company NFI’s warehouse in Ontario, California. When the day’s run is done, the truck adjourns to the brand-new charging depot next door to fill up its battery for tomorrow’s trip.

These trucks are part of a project called the Joint Electric Truck Scaling Initiative, or JETSI. Funded by a handful of state sustainability agencies, the project aims to prove that electric power really can replace dirty diesel for trucking, at least for regional runs. Soon, about 100 electric trucks divided between two shipping companies will be driving around Southern California, delivering cargo while discovering just how challenging it will be for American trucking to run on battery power.

JETSI took a big leap toward its goal this week as NFI, one of two companies that will operate the electric semis, opened a 50-stall high-power charging depot next to its Ontario warehouse.

Jim O’Leary, vice president of fleet services at NFI, told me his company had already installed a handful of chargers and run a few EV semis as part of early initiatives such as the Daimler Innovation Fleet, a recent test project in which Freightliner EV semi drive hundreds of thousands of test miles. When California wanted a more ambitious test of electric trucking, he said, he thought NFI’s operations were an ideal match.

Electric semis still have a relatively short range and long recharge times, so battery power may not work for long-haul trucking — not for a while anyway. One of NFI’s core businesses, however, is “drayage,” or moving shipping containers on the back of semi trucks between a port and a warehouse. The current slate of EV trucks can make this 110- to 120-mile round trip before needing to recharge. Once they’re done, it takes 90 to 120 minutes to power up again.

“What we realized was going to be the sweet spot for electrification was this short haul, returning to the home base,” O’Leary said. “Electrification would be kind of perfect for that application.”

To streamline the operation, NFI was able to buy the plot of land next to its warehouse for the charging depot, negating the hassle of trucks making a separate trip to plug in. O’Leary said the company plans to install 1 megawatt of solar generating capacity on site. That’s not enough to charge the trucks on sun power, but it is enough to fill up the on-site batteries during the day when the trucks are out working, and then use the saved juice to help charge the vehicles later in the day when the sun has gone down.

While that sounds rosy, the purpose of a pilot project is to discover the pain points. With EV trucking, there are plenty. First: weight. The huge batteries needed to power a semi impart a serious weight penalty. Even though the state gives an extra allowance for zero-emission vehicles, O’Leary said (they may exceed the state’s weight limits by 2,000 lbs), they’re just not a great choice for carrying heavy cargo. That means shippers have to be careful about what they say they can move. “You can't really haul beverage like you would a diesel,” he said.

Maintenance is a question mark. As Heatmap has noted before, passenger EVs don’t need the same kind of basic upkeep as gasoline cars — no oil changes, no spark plug swaps. But because today’s EVs haven’t gotten old yet, we don’t know for sure how their components will age over a decade or two. The same is true for EV tractor-trailers. “We know that some of the wearables go away — the oil changes and the need to grease,” O’Leary said. But no one can be sure whether electric semis will save money on maintenance in the long term.

Then there’s the question of who’s going to fix them. A trucking company has enough certified mechanics on hand to repair run-down trucks and get them back on the road. Finding enough mechanics with the proper electrical safety certifications and know-how to repair EVs is no easy task.

The big one, of course, is the cost. NFI’s JETSI project cost $45 million all-in, O’Leary said, counting the land purchase, the chargers from Electrify America, the solar power equipment and backup batteries, the trucks, and everything else. California state agencies including California Air Resources Board, California Energy Commission, and South Coast Air Quality Management District gave money to fund this proof-of-concept, and California cap-and-trade dollars could contribute to electrifying the trucking industry in the future. But JETSI shows just how many hurdles are involved.

“I don’t want to say we were shortsighted, because I think you can’t be shortsighted when you undertake a project like this, and you're obviously looking to the future in some ways,” he said. “But I don’t think any of us, or our partners, realized the complexities that this project is going to have. Not only the complexities, but the capital investment that it takes to actually make a project like this work. And that’s where I think we are still a ways away from this being the norm.”

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Andrew Moseman

Andrew Moseman has covered science, technology, and transportation for publications such as The Atlantic, Inverse, Insider, Outside, and MIT Technology Review. He was previously digital director of Popular Mechanics and now serves as online communications editor at Caltech. He is based in Los Angeles. Read More

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