There are more than four million electric vehicles on American roads, but fewer than 1,000 of them are heavy trucks. On Tuesday, the three largest truck makers plan to announce an initiative to remedy that shortfall by asking governments and utilities to help them build many more places to charge big trucks.
Daimler Truck, owner of Freightliner; Navistar, controlled by Volkswagen; and Volvo Trucks have formed a partnership to push for chargers, power grid improvements and other measures they say are needed to promote battery- or hydrogen-powered trucks.
The new organization, Powering America's Commercial Transportation, will be based in Washington and will also be open to suppliers, nonprofits and other groups.
The companies' decision to work together underscores the extent to which the transition away from fossil fuels depends on government support and decisions made in Washington and state capitals. The Inflation Reduction Act, which Democrats passed in 2022, provides $1 billion for electric trucks, including tax credits of up to $40,000 for companies that buy them, as well as subsidies for charging infrastructure.
But officials are just beginning to distribute the money, and trucking companies complain that they have received less attention from federal and state governments than automakers.
“There is a lot of funding available from the federal government,” said Dawn Fenton, vice president of government relations and public affairs for Volvo North America. “So far there has been little focus on heavy-duty charging infrastructure.”
Only nine fast charging stations in the United States are capable of servicing heavy trucks, according to data from the Department of Energy.
Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gases in the United States, with trucks, buses and vans accounting for 29 percent of vehicle emissions, according to Calstart, a nonprofit group whose members work both in the industry as in the government. Poorer communities tend to suffer more from truck pollution because they are more likely to be near industrial zones or highways.
Eliminating these emissions is difficult. An electric truck requires a large, heavy battery that reduces the amount of stuff the vehicle can carry.
Zero-emission trucks are also two to three times more expensive than diesel trucks, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, although prices are expected to drop as companies ramp up production.
Truck makers say they are committed to selling emissions-free vehicles, but environmental groups have accused them of trying to block policies that would force the industry to move faster.
This month, the Sierra Club, along with 40 other advocacy groups, sent letters to the CEOs of Daimler Truck and Volvo Trucks, accusing them of trying to thwart stricter emissions standards. In comments on the Environmental Protection Agency's proposed regulations, both truck makers have pushed for a slower introduction of new standards.
In the letter to Volvo CEO Martin Lundstedt, the group wrote: “Volvo Trucks USA must focus its efforts and resources on electrifying the transportation sector now, especially in the communities most affected by truck emissions, instead of fight the policies necessary to move the entire system faster.” The groups sent a similar letter to Martin Daum, CEO of Daimler Truck.
(Volvo Trucks is not part of Volvo, the automaker, and Daimler Truck is independent of Mercedes-Benz.)
Truck makers face less competitive pressure than auto companies. In the auto business, Tesla has won over customers who previously drove cars made by Mercedes, General Motors and Volkswagen, forcing those companies to respond. The Tesla Model Y sport utility vehicle was the best-selling passenger vehicle of any type worldwide in 2023, according to JATO Dynamics, a market research company.
No new truck manufacturer has had a comparable impact. Tesla has developed a long-haul electric truck called the Semi, but the company has not started selling it in large quantities.
“We would have moved faster in the last five years if there was a zero-emission trucking company taking the lead,” said Katherine Garcia, director of a Sierra Club program that promotes clean transportation.
Nikola once aimed to be the Tesla of the trucking industry, but has struggled since its founder, Trevor Milton, was accused of defrauding investors by lying about the capabilities of the company's technology. Milton was sentenced in December to four years in prison after a jury found him guilty. He denies any wrongdoing and is appealing. Nikola, under new management, shipped 79 vehicles in the first nine months of 2023, the most recent figures the company has disclosed.
Truck makers argue that they can't be expected to sell battery-powered trucks when there are barely any places to charge them. Electric trucks require extremely powerful chargers and, as a result, larger grid connections than are available. Many utilities need to be updated Old distribution lines, transformers and other equipment. to be able to deliver the energy necessary to refuel several trucks simultaneously.
Brien Sheahan, head of government relations and regulatory affairs at Navistar, said a customer had ordered a fleet of electric trucks and installed 20 chargers in its warehouse. But, he said, “they couldn't get the utility company to power it up.”
Deficiencies in the electrical grid “will be a limitation on our ability to scale the industry.”“ said Sheahan, former president and CEO of the Illinois Commerce Commission, which regulates electric utilities.
Ms. Garcia of the Sierra Club said that despite the slow progress so far, she was optimistic. She noted that sales of electric delivery vans and other smaller trucks were growing rapidly, in part because California and other states are forcing manufacturers to reduce emissions and offering incentives to truck buyers.
Delivery vans, like those used by Amazon, require less energy and typically travel relatively short routes. As a result, those vehicles can be charged overnight with less powerful chargers than those needed for heavy trucks.
“The market is moving really fast,” García said. “We're at the point where it's really going to accelerate.”
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