Electric vehicles

When it comes to electrifying transportation, heavy-duty vehicles lag far behind

BNEF predicts just 35% of medium- and heavy-duty vehicle sales will be zero-emission in by 2040.
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Francis Scialabba

· 5 min read

When it comes to electrification, trucks are getting left in the dust.

While two- and three-wheeled vehicles, buses, passenger EVs, and other light-duty commercial vehicles could come close to hitting the sales figures needed for a net zero scenario by 2050 based on current trajectories, medium- and heavy-duty vehicles are way off track, according to BloombergNEF’s latest Electric Vehicle Outlook.

To reach net zero by 2050, zero-emissions medium and heavy commercial vehicles need to make up about 95% of sales in 2040, but the current outlook predicts they will only account for about 35%, according to BNEF.

Consumer demand for EVs and the economic benefits to fleet owners who make the switch are driving significant increases in passenger and light-duty commercial EV sales. But even as production of these EVs ramps up, options for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles remain scarce and expensive because they require specific battery tech and charging capabilities.

As of 2020, transportation was the biggest contributor of greenhouse-gas emissions in the US, making up 27% of total emissions, per the EPA. And large vehicles—from garbage trucks to flatbeds to tractor trailers—accounted for about one-quarter of the CO2 emissions from transportation.

The tech challenge

Part of this issue hinges on battery technology—bigger vehicles need bigger batteries. Large trucks have different requirements for power, charging, and consistency, Nikolas Soulopoulos, head of commercial transport research at BloombergNEF and co-author of the report, told Emerging Tech Brew.

“The engineering of the batteries and the right price for batteries is one of the big problems,” he said.

Since additional development is needed for truck batteries, and these batteries are not produced at the same scale as those for passenger EVs, batteries for these vehicles are currently as much as 2x–3x more expensive than batteries for passenger EVs, Soulopoulos said.

Still, fully-electric trucks are beginning to hit the market.

  • Volvo is already selling medium-duty electric trucks and is accepting orders for three types of heavy-duty electric trucks it plans to begin producing this fall. Freightliner, Kenworth, Peterbilt, BYD, and Lion Electric also already offer battery-powered semis in the US.
  • EV startup Nikola aims to deliver 300–500 of its electric trucks this year and Tesla is now taking reservations for its long-awaited Semi.

Charging infrastructure is also a significant hurdle.

Medium- and heavy-duty commercial vehicles drive many different types of routes, from local urban delivery service to interstate transport. The charging infrastructure for these EVs has to match the needs of the fleet and often that includes high-power chargers, especially for long-haul operations.

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Charging stations would need to reach megawatt-scale in order to charge multiple large trucks simultaneously on long-haul routes, Soulopoulos said. The most powerful fast chargers for passenger EVs today typically range from about 50kW to 350kW.

“The truck makers are building their trucks and their batteries to withstand that kind of charging power. These stations are not here yet,” he said. “Even the technical standard hasn’t been finalized for those.”

  • Companies like Heliox and TeraWatt Infrastructure are building high-powered charging stations for medium and heavy EV fleets.
  • Tesla is also developing a >1MW charger and is lobbying the federal government, along with other EV companies, to use some of the $7.5 billion for charging from the bipartisan infrastructure law to build infrastructure specifically for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles.

The economic challenge

The other concern is affordability. Since electric options for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles are still more expensive than diesel counterparts, it’s government action that may drive decarbonization in the near term.

The medium- and heavy-duty commercial vehicle segment would require “urgent action” from policymakers around the world to meet net-zero goals, according to the BNEF report.

“At this very moment, there are very few use cases that are inherently economically competitive for these [electric] trucks without reducing the price of the electric vehicle or increasing the cost of the diesel truck,” Soulopoulos said.

Measures to encourage adoption could include vouchers or waived registration fees for medium- and heavy-duty commercial EVs that help to subsidize the higher price.

For example, California has a Hybrid and Zero-Emission Truck and Bus Voucher Incentive Project (HVIP) that provides funding for electric buses and certain tractor trailers.

On the flipside, local governments could also implement low-emission or zero-emission zones that make the most polluting vehicles more expensive by charging a fee for older diesel trucks to drive through these areas.

London implemented an Ultra-Low Emissions Zone in the city’s center in 2019 and has been gradually expanding it.

Big picture: The good news is that despite the higher costs today, there is a path for many trucks and other medium- and heavy-duty battery-electric vehicles to become economically competitive with diesel within five years in the US, Europe, and China, Soulopoulos said, particularly those operating in cities.

Adoption is set to grow, but it will take serious net-zero commitments and policies.

“The signs are all there,” he said. “But by no means is it easy.”

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