Archive, Truck Reviews

Making sense of electric trucks

Insights from across the Pacific on alternatively propelled commercial vehicles


With commercial electric truck use in Australia still in its infancy, clues to the operational value of their use here are scarce. With things more advanced across the Pacific, the North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE) recently released an overview of its survey findings from fleets there.

This report’s conclusions were generated through interviews with fleets, manufacturers, and subject matter experts with first-hand experience with battery electric vehicles and grid infrastructure.

Fourteen fleets responded to a survey that was used to better understand their needs and plans with respect to electric truck adoption. 

Where they make sense

The NACFE created this Guidance Report to provide perspective, insights, and resources on the complex topic of the viability of commercial battery electric vehicles (CBEVs), Classes 3 through 8 (see below).

This report provides a foundation for understanding the key arguments for and against this rapidly evolving powertrain alternative.

This report expands NACFE’s role to include emerging new technologies that may not yet be available in production.

The fuel costs faced by the trucking industry are a significant part of the expense to operate a tractor-trailer in North America. 

Over the past decade fuel has been as high as $0.65 per mile driven and then dropped to $0.34 by 2016. At these two points, fuel costs accounted for 39 per cent and 21 per cent of the total cost of operating a commercial vehicle respectively. The price per gallon for diesel as of March 2018 has now risen to around $3.00 per gallon ($0.44 per mile) from the 2017 yearly average of $2.65.

In addition, the US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have enacted greenhouse gas emissions regulations on commercial vehicles extended to 2027 that require manufacturers to develop and sell technologies to improve efficiency.

These factors have driven fleets, manufacturers, and others to improve the efficiency of over-the-road tractor-trailers.

Fortunately, myriad technologies that can cost-effectively improve the fuel efficiency of Class 8 trucks are readily available on the market today.

While the industry continues to increase the adoption levels of these technologies, industry stalwarts and new start-ups are aggressively developing revolutionary new products such as electric powertrains for trucks and technologies that continue to increase automated operation.

Widespread innovation and technological advances are producing technologies and practices that could affect decisive, revolutionary, and potentially disruptive opportunities across the transportation industry.

As novel concepts, new applications, and original modes of behaviour reach the market, fleets and manufacturers need information on the benefits, challenges, and risks so that everyone can profit in this evolving landscape.


Electric truck arguments

Battery electric vehicles for commercial applications are here today and are a growing alternative to traditional gasoline, diesel, alternative fuel, and hybrid powertrains. Opinions vary on whether this technology is a viable alternative to traditional powertrains; they are considered a threat by some and a promise by others. While considerable capital is being invested as a result of CBEVs, information is rife with biases and vested interests. In research for this Guidance Report, NACFE identified some common arguments both for and against electric Class 3 through 8 commercial vehicles. The findings fall into several broad categories: weight, technology, cost, and charging/electric grid issues.

This Guidance Report evaluates these positions and assesses the viability for North American Class 3 to 8 commercial battery electric vehicles to help the industry understand the many claims and rebuttals.

Electric Truck parity 3-6.png


NACFE’s findings on these major positions on the extreme end of each argument are summarized below.

WEIGHT — Weight affects fuel economy. And the tare weight – the unladen weight – of the truck is important in determining the amount of freight it can legally carry. Many people worry that adding batteries to gain range in an electric truck will unacceptably reduce allowable freight, increasing the net vehicle operating costs so much that the comparison to a diesel is not attractive. Yet competitive vehicle tare weights are possible in all classes for many duty cycles.

Diesel powertrains include fluids, emissions systems, exhaust systems, cooling systems, and mountings – all things that aren’t included in CBEVs and that increase weight. Also, typical payloads in many applications are well below maximum gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR). The combination of both of these factors allows for CBEV solutions with equivalent freight carrying capacity in many applications, but not all.

TECHNOLOGY — The rapid pace of improvements in battery technologies – increased capacity and decreased cost and weight – could spur increases in CBEV efficiency that likely cannot be matched by evolutionary changes to internal combustion engines.

These competing technologies are at different points in maturing on their innovation S-curves, with the greater potential going to the newer CBEVs.

Reliability of the new CBEV technologies will improve through original equipment manufacturer (OEM) experience with increasing numbers of vehicles on the road. The large OEMs will enter the market with production CBEVs providing long-term stability for fleets considering electric trucks.

Maintenance and service cost reduction is an open question at this time. The industry is still at the early stages of development where designs have not yet matured through significant field experience.

Preliminary findings indicate that these costs are average or slightly better than typical internal combustion alternatives but could prove to be significantly better given the much simpler overall design of the CBEV.

Feedback from medium-duty electric truck operators is that, after separating out early failures, these vehicles over the long run do have lower maintenance costs versus diesel.

In regards to vehicle life, fleets, OEMs, and suppliers expect a Class 3 through 8 vehicle life of seven to 10 years before major refurbishing or salvage.

The most common concern is the battery packs, as charging of CBEV battery packs tends to reduce their capacity.

The manufacturers expect the battery packs to be replaced when they reach 80 per cent of their initial capacity. NACFE projects that batteries will likely exceed the seven- to 10-year vehicle life.

Electric Truck pairty 7-8.png

COST — Cost is, of course, a critical factor in fleet technology decisions. The determination of net costs/benefits of CBEVs requires more effort than traditionally limited return on investment (ROI) calculations.

Multiple factors need to be included, from straightforward costs such as grants, incentives, and taxes, to hard-to-quantify costs such as emissions credits, brand image, liability costs, disposal costs, indirect costs, driver/technician retention or attraction, potential customers, and other opportunity costs/benefits buried in overhead or ignored in traditional ROI calculations.

Residual value and salvage value are also significant questions as there is no history at present. New business model innovations related to costing the delivery of energy to the vehicle also need to be included.

Charging these trucks is not currently as available as gasoline or diesel refuelling. The industry is also developing alternatives to traditional purchasing or leasing, which will factor into attaining positive ROI for CBEV investment.

The battery system is the most expensive cost item. The trend over the last decade is expected to continue, with large reductions in cost and significant gains in performance. Diesel performance, in contrast, is unlikely to yield large gains in performance with reduced costs.

Diesel powertrains, after a century of commercial vehicle development, are at a different point in maturation where gains are small and expensive, and complicated further by increased demand for emissions reduction.

Operating costs can be less for CBEVs because electric drives are more energy-efficient than diesels and the reduction in diesel-based friction-sensitive mechanical systems such as pumps, valves, transmissions, and belts should reduce maintenance and servicing.

However, vehicle residual value is still undetermined. Electric vehicles (cars and trucks) are still mostly within their first owner’s use. The used electric vehicle is in its infancy. And Class 3 through 6 vehicles may not typically have a second life as the first owner may run them until they are scrapped.

However, the value of electric motors and batteries in salvage may prove an advantage as they can be repurposed for non-vehicle uses and may have significant life left.


CHARGING/ELECTRIC GRID — CBEVs will increase demand on electricity and require improved demand management and storage and new electrical charging infrastructure.

There are new business opportunities for charging infrastructure that may accelerate this, such as utilities or third parties providing the charging stations to factories and warehouses. Thus, the lack of current infrastructure is not a detriment to CBEV adoption, but rather an opportunity for market growth.

The speed needed for charging depends on each fleet’s duty cycles and daily and weekly route scheduling. Many operations have defined cycles that permit off-cycle daily charging. While off-shift charging of vehicles is possible today with existing systems, the challenge is high-speed charging.

CBEVs needing sub-30 minute charging speeds require high-capacity production charging systems that are currently only in the conceptual phase.

Technically, these high-speed systems are thought to be feasible by a range of experts, but practicality is still a question for them. Fleets with well-defined one-driver shift A-B-A, or A-B-C-A type routes, for example, are well positioned to have base depot charging.

Even fleets with routes between hubs, if range is sufficient, could have charging at both ends of the trip. Fleets with variable routes and no guaranteed return trips, will need growth in remote “public” charging capacity before considering replacing diesels with CBEVs.

Hybrids may be needed where vehicles operate between, and in, zero-emissions zones. The US has energy production capacity for significant volumes of electric cars and trucks. Adding vehicle charging stations to a warehouse or factory is like adding a new line; a process utility companies regularly perform for commercial sites. High-rate charging expected for any sub-30 minute charging of commercial vehicles, does create a significant demand on the grid. Alternatives to mitigate this through levelling and storage systems are being considered.

PARITY BETWEEN CBEVS AND DIESELS — CBEV comparison to diesel powertrains is not a simple yes/no choice. There are multiple factors, time frames, and cost/benefits to consider. NACFE summarises these multiple factors using parity, the point at which a CBEV is roughly equivalent to a diesel powertrain. The two parity charts summarise NACFE’s estimated time frame where parity is reached between these two powertrains. The first is for Class 3 through 6 segments, generally referred to as medium duty. The second is for Class 7 and 8 segments, heavy duty.

An example in how to interpret these charts is to look at the Class 3 through 6 weight.

Read about SEA Electric’s venture into electric waste trucks, here

As stated in the report, battery capabilities and weight have evolved to the point that production CBEVs are available and capable of many medium-duty urban delivery services.

These are where daily routes are in the 25 to 100 mile (40–160km) range, where load density cubes out, and where traffic stop-and-go conditions accentuate use of regenerative braking systems to recover energy. Parity exists today for typical daily range achievement. However, a diesel-fuelled truck may have 30, 60, or more gallons in its fuel tank, meaning a potential daily range of hundreds of miles.

While that truck only drives 25–100 miles per day, it could go much farther.

Parity here requires advances in battery technology (e.g., energy density improvement and weight reduction).

The report outlines that this improvement is occurring and significant change is expected in the next decade. So parity when max daily range is equivalent between similar capacity medium-duty urban delivery trucks is predicted in 2030. This example highlights that electric truck viability is a series of trade-off discussions, not one single thumbs up or thumbs down.



While CBEVs will not be a solution for every application or market, NACFE’s research finds that commercial CBEVs will have an increasing role in freight transportation in Classes 3 through 8.

The transition in specific market segments will be drawn out over decades, sharing space with traditional gasoline, diesel, and other alternative-fuel powertrains and also competing with other emerging technologies like fuel cells and hybrids.

Thus, mixed fleets (including diesel, natural gas, hybrid, and CBEV products) optimised for specific routes and duty cycles will likely be the norm through 2050. Early adopters will be in the urban delivery Class 3 through 6 segments where operations are characterised by fairly stable route definitions between 50 and 100 miles per day, loads tend to cube out, and vehicles run one shift per day and return to the same base location.

Longer ranges and heavier weights in Classes 7 and 8 are possible in specific operations, but will not be viable in all roles. Particularly challenging will be long haul segments which need distributed infrastructure and payload capacity.

Electric trucks will succeed or fail under the intense spotlight of the marketplace. The evaluations we read daily in media and technical reports span the spectrum from overly optimistic proponents to overly pessimistic opponents. NACFE hopes this report provides a middle ground, where judgments include fact-based decision making, active testing, and fleet experience.


NACFE aims to drive the development and adoption of efficiency enhancing, environmentally beneficial, and cost-effective technologies, services and methodologies in the North American freight industry. Counting fleet-owners, major truckmakers, dealers and technical suppliers amongst its partners, it states that it is “unbiased and fuel agnostic”. 



Previous ArticleNext Article
Send this to a friend