Going electric

Already available for shorter hauls, manufacturers like Nikola and Volvo are preparing for a future of electric trucks.

December 2020/January 2021

Tyson Fisher


Truckers who plan on staying in the industry for the next decade should expect to see a steady increase of electric trucks on the market.

Although there is a lot of discussion regarding self-driving trucks and the impact they will have, that potential reality is much further down the road. Electrification of trucks, on the other hand, is already here.

There are some hurdles to cross, including regulatory roadblocks and infrastructure. However, progress in electric trucks is accelerating. A combination of lobbying from environmental groups, state regulations, billions of dollars invested in new tech, and the established manufacturers getting in the ring has led to the future of electric trucks closing in sooner than many realized.

An inside look

For decades, truck manufacturing has been dominated by a select few, including Daimler, Navistar, Paccar and Volvo/Mack. Although they have been building trucks with some component of electrification, their focus is still on the dominant diesel market. However, newcomers are spending 100% of their time and energy on zero-emission trucks.

Among the bigger names of the new manufacturers is Nikola. In July, the company grabbed attention when it broke ground on a $600 million, 430-acre manufacturing facility in Coolidge, Ariz. Founded in 2014, Nikola’s huge investment in a facility showed everybody that the young company is now ready to build and sell zero-emission trucks.

In a conversation with Land Line, Nikola CEO Mark Russell explained how zero-emission trucks is a question of “when,” not “if.” And the answer to that question is either “now” or “soon,” depending on where you haul. Short- and regional-haul applications are pretty much already available. However, it will be a bit longer before the technology can meet the needs of long-haul applications.

“We believe that the long-haul market would not be suitably addressed by current battery-electric vehicles because they don’t have the energy density at this point to cover that market,” Russell said. “But if you put hydrogen onboard a truck and make that the primary source, then you can have pretty much any long-haul mission and have no difference in the performance you’re looking at compared to current latest generation vehicles.

“So we think that, yes, the vehicles are not there for the long-haul market yet, but they’re about to be.”

Nikola has three hydrogen-fueled electric Class 8 trucks in the works: Nikola One, Two and Tre. The Nikola One claims to have an estimated range of 500-750 miles, a 20-minute refill time and a whopping 1,000 hp engine. The Nikola Two is a day cab version of Nikola One. The Nikola Tre will be an all-electric cabover version with a 250-300 mile range and 640 continuous hp engine. The Tre will also have a fuel cell version.

The battery-electric Tre will be introduced to the North American market at the end of next year for launch customers, according to Russell, with the fuel cell version of the Two and Tre available in 2023. Essentially, battery-electric trucks will be on the roads by 2021-23, with fuel-cell trucks hitting the pavement by 2023. However, this will be mostly for regional haul.

“If you’re a driver who’s driving a truck in the metropolitan area and you’re able to return to base for the night and you sleep at home every night, your truck is going to be electric in the near term,” Russel said. “I’m not talking about tomorrow or next month necessarily. Next year or in a few years, I think it’s highly likely you’re going to have a chance to drive an electric truck or you should be looking to drive an electric truck if you’re an owner-operator.”

Established manufacturers

With zero-emission trucks seeming inevitable, longstanding manufacturers have been building electric trucks as well.

Volvo has been extremely active with its LIGHTS program. In collaboration with the South Coast Air Quality Management District in California and 13 other organizations, Volvo is developing a blueprint to introduce battery-electric trucks and equipment into the market at scale. Two companies began piloting Volvo VNR electric trucks in September. In October, Volvo Trucks was awarded $21.7 million in grants by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to deploy 70 VNR electric trucks in Southern California for regional freight distribution and drayage.

Volvo North America Director of Electric Vehicles Brett Pope spoke with Land Line about the future of electric trucks. From the established manufacturers’ point of view, electric trucks are part of their portfolio that also includes diesel trucks. Although companies like Volvo, Daimler and Paccar continue to focus on diesel trucks, they certainly have the resources to explore the world of electric trucks.

“For Volvo Trucks, we see a clear demand for zero-emission products,” Pope said. “We are very proactively engaged in electrification.”

Most of Volvo’s electric product line has been focused in Europe. However, that has a lot to do with differences in regulatory action. On the other hand, the regulatory landscape in the United States may be shifting closer toward zero-emission trucks.

Like Russell at Nikola, Pope and Volvo’s zero-emission truck outlook appears to be gradual and regional.

“It’s not going to be an overnight thing,” Pope said. “It is a journey. We need to make sure there’s a good fit for the application, for the duty cycle, for the charging capabilities to be able to maintain the uptime you need. And then as technology evolves, as range increases, as charging infrastructure becomes available in public spaces, then you’ll start growing.”

Regulatory hurdles

Unlike autonomous vehicles, there are no regulations at the state or federal level preventing zero-emission trucks. However, regulations can pressure manufacturers to roll out zero-emission trucks faster. Although President Donald Trump rolled back certain EPA requirements at the federal level, several states are taking the initiative to expedite the widespread adoption of zero-emission trucks.

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order that addresses emissions standards in passenger vehicles. In short, the order requires 100% of sales of new passenger vehicles in California to be zero-emission by 2035. The executive order also requires the same standard for medium- and heavy-duty trucks by 2045.

Less binding, the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management announced in July that 15 states and D.C. signed a memorandum of understanding to expedite the electrification of trucks. The states pledge that all truck sales will be zero-emission trucks by 2050. In the short term, 30% of truck sales will be zero-emission trucks by 2030. Participating states are California, Connecticut, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.

Without cohesive federal action, there may be a piecemeal approach to zero-emission trucks.

Typically liberal states will likely have some requirement, whereas more conservative states will maintain the status quo of diesel trucks until otherwise mandated.

Pope told Land Line that Volvo sees a “very clear regulatory push toward zero-emission products and further reduction of CO2” in Europe, which is why their zero-emission trucks are further along over there. Furthermore, the cost of diesel is much cheaper over here.

The established manufacturers have already been building zero-emission trucks overseas, while the newer companies are assuming a diesel-free future. In other words, the manufacturers are prepared for any regulatory push toward zero-emission trucks. And according to Pope, Volvo’s LIGHTS program has seen strong interest from drivers who are reporting a high level of satisfaction, suggesting drivers are ready for the transition if given the opportunity.

As of press time, Joe Biden was the projected winner of the presidential election. Although a Democrat executive branch could lead to a stronger push toward zero-emission policies, a divided Congress could stall a lot of that. A Senate runoff election for January in Georgia will likely determine who controls it. If Democrats win that race, they will control both the legislative and executive branches, allowing Biden to more easily pass policies.

Build it and they will come

Even if zero-emission trucks become viable for most trucking applications, there is still the problem of a lack of charging infrastructure. Consumers may not find zero-emission vehicles feasible in areas that do not have a relatively dense charging station infrastructure. That may change soon.

The public sector, private companies and a combination of the two are seeing the financial incentive to build charging stations across the country. A lot of investment is coming from manufacturers themselves, knowing that for some consumers the only thing standing between them and a zero-emission truck is the charging station infrastructure.

Take Nikola for example. If you buy a Nikola truck, you’re getting more than just the truck. Nikola offers what is called a “bundled lease,” which includes the vehicles, service/maintenance and the hydrogen fuel. However, the fuel is only guaranteed in areas where the fuel is available. Russell pointed out that it took decades to build the current diesel infrastructure. It likely won’t take decades to build the zero-emission infrastructure, but it will be a gradual process.

Specifically, hydrogen and electric stations will likely be prominent in major metro areas, particularly those in blue states with some sort of zero-emission vehicle policy.

For Nikola, that’s going to include Los Angeles, San Francisco and its home base in Phoenix. Nikola also is looking at areas in the Northeast. From that first batch of cities, we’ll likely see a spider-web effect, like a cracked windshield – i.e., charging/fuel station locations will begin to branch off from existing stations. Eventually, these will all connect so that hydrogen and electric stations are available coast to coast, border to border.

Volvo has secured Underwriters Laboratories certification for its Combined Charging System CCS2 connector. In other words, its electric trucks will be using an industry-standard charging port. This is important for manufacturers that want to use universal charging stations. Navistar made a similar announcement about its use of the Combined Charging System.

Speaking of Navistar, it also announced in August that its NEXT eMobility Solutions business unit has signed an agreement with In-Charge Energy, an energy solutions company based in Los Angeles, to provide charging infrastructure and consulting services to Navistar and its electric vehicle customers. LL

Tyson Fisher

Tyson Fisher joined Land Line Magazine in March 2014. An award-winning journalist and tireless researcher, his news reports, features and blogs bring depth to our editorial content, backed with solid detail. Tyson is a lifelong Kansas Citian.