Electric Vehicles Will have Tough Audience in LTL Carriers

  • Electric Vehicles Will have Tough Audience in LTL Carriers

    Electric Vehicles Will have Tough Audience in LTL Carriers

    Electric trucks remain very much a show-me story in general. For less-than-truckload carriers, electric vehicles (EVs) may be a no-show unless certain things change.

    The lack of a robust infrastructure and recharging time are the twin bogeymen, but more so for LTL carriers than for their truckload brethren. That’s because LTL carriers operate vehicles in both local pickup and delivery and in over-the-road services. This dual-use operation effectively keeps trucks utilized 20 hours out of a 24-hour cycle. Once LTL trucks age out five years, they are typically moved into local service only for the remainder of an approximately eight-to-10-year lifecycle.

    To calculate EV’s cost-effectiveness in the LTL world, Charlie Prickett, president and COO of LTL giant AAA Cooper Transportation, uses the ratio of charging time to operating time. Currently, EVs get about six to seven hours of charge time, which would produce the equivalent of about eight hours of operating time, or about 400 miles, according to Prickett.

    The subsequent charge cycle would take that vehicle out of use for large LTL fleets at critical times in their operations, Prickett said. This would require Cooper to add more trucks and drivers to replace one truck that could otherwise perform a full day’s work, he added.

    If LTL trucks were limited to 400-mile trips followed by six to seven hours of recharge idle time, the “economic leverage of asset utilization and transit speed could be negatively impacted,” Prickett said in an email. For LTL, the range and economic effect on equipment utilization and delivery transit times would be “particularly impactful,” he said.

    Since about half of Cooper’s 3,000 vehicles fall under the dual-use category, the adoption of EVs would mean many of the trucks would effectively be restricted to urban service, according to Prickett.

    Truckload carriers, while also coping with the current dearth of supporting EV infrastructure, don’t have the dual-use pressure of utilization that LTL carriers must manage. Truckload carriers fill up their rigs with 200 gallons of diesel in 20 to 30 minutes and get 22 hours — or 1,500 miles — of run time from the tank, Prickett said.

    The difference between truckload and LTL truck utilization is “stark,” Prickett said at the SMC3 annual winter meeting in Atlanta earlier this week. “That differential will have to be overcome for large LTL fleets to successfully adopt EVs.”

    “The economic value proposition (of EVs) has yet to be discovered,” Prickett said in an interview with FreightWaves at the event. “But that doesn’t suggest alternative cleaner energy shouldn’t be pursued for the future.”

    Prickett said the inflection points will be improvements in battery-charging power, more robust charging infrastructure and a general push toward the testing and development of alternative energy sources, hybrid fuels and related technologies.

    According to Prickett, Cooper is planning EV tests with two customers that use its vehicles for dedicated contract carriage, where shippers effectively book out capacity for a period of time in return for guaranteed volumes. Knight-Swift Transportation Holdings Inc. (NYSE: KNX), Cooper’s parent, Cooper’s parent company is also engaged in EV testing.

    Obstacles ahead

    At about $300,000 to $400,000 per vehicle, EVs are currently twice as expensive as diesel trucks. Federal and state incentives are available that bring the purchase or lease price of an EV in line with diesel. For example, California offers incentives of as much as $168,000 per truck, while an additional $40,000 is available under the federal Inflation Reduction Act.

    Prickett doesn’t expect vehicle cost to be a long-term issue once prices begin to decline. Maintenance and repair technicians would need to be trained to work on EVs. Cooper’s technicians are “extremely skilled people” and should have little trouble adapting to the new technology, he said.

    Policymakers and regulators have set deadlines of either 2040 or 2045 for ending new sales of diesel-powered trucks. However, such a deadline, which remains somewhat vague, would be unlikely to completely remove diesel trucks from the roads. The transition would likely be to battery-electric powertrains for regional hauls and fuel-cell electric for longer hauls.

    Other issues to contend with are the size and weight of a truck battery, which could reduce range and crowd out available payload. This might require more trucks to be deployed to transport an equivalent amount of freight.

    Then there is the challenge of accommodating battery-charging locations in areas that might be needed for truck parking, already in short supply. Unlike LTL carriers that have terminals to locate their charging stations, truckload carriers charge batteries from roadside locations.

    Denise Kearns, an environmental professional for the Environmental Protection Agency’s long-running “SmartWay” public-private partnership, said the goals to transition to EVs are ambitious, largely because the costs are daunting. Demand and orders “will trickle in initially,” Kearns said. “But we have a long road to go.”

    Bill Sullivan, executive vice president of advocacy at the American Trucking Associations (ATA), said at the SMC conference that EVs will unlikely capture more than 10% of Class 8 vehicle market share using the range available with current battery technologies.

    By: Mark Solomon / FreightWaves

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