Commercial-Truck EV Fleets Slow to Grow

Even for the largest players, the underdeveloped charging ecosystem is hampering commercial-truck fleets’ electrification efforts.

An electric delivery van is one of many electrified vehicles in the 120,000-vehicle global fleet operated by delivery service UPS. (UPS)

Environmental regulations and corporate sustainability goals are driving commercial fleets to adopt electric trucks in all classes. But the still-evolving charging infrastructure is stymying their wider implementation.

Although fleets have invested in electric Class 8 tractors such as the Freightliner eCascadia, some say installing charging infrastructure appropriate to the trucks’ needs has been difficult. (Freightliner)

That was the consensus of expert trucking-industry panelists speaking in the “Fleets’ Perspective on Electrification” session at SAE International’s 2024 Government/Industry Meeting in Washington, DC in January. Panelists so repeatedly cited the nascent charging infrastructure as their chief concern that it became a running joke of the session. Even for large corporate fleets ready and able to absorb the extra cost of EV trucks and invest in the not-inconsiderable expense of installing private charging facilities, infrastructure issues, speakers said, are for now mostly inescapable.

Shyft Group’s commercial BEV chassis features customizable length and wheelbase, enabling it to underpin a wide variety of medium-duty trucks and end uses. (SAE/Matt Wolfe)

Andrew Okuyiga, VP of public affairs for UPS, offered a vivid example. The multi-national delivery service that runs 120,000 vehicles worldwide purchased a handful of eCascadia EV Class 8 tractors sold by Daimler Trucks’ Freightliner unit. Two years later, the UPS facility that’s home to the electric trucks still is waiting for permitting approval for the electrical service needed to charge the rigs. He said the facility comes under the jurisdiction of two counties with differing approaches to permitting. Also slowing charging-capacity expansion, he added, is that some utilities “get nervous” when entities propose installing massive electric capacity.

The immature charging infrastructure isn’t the only factor slowing trucking fleets’ adoption of EVs. Fluid figures regarding total cost of ownership (TCO) also are a big concern as fleet administrators struggle to understand how repair and maintenance for EV trucks — as well as their eventual resale value — will compare with their internal-combustion counterparts. “Calculating TCO [for electrified fleet trucks] right now is a challenge, because they’re so new,” said Mike Kastner, senior vice president of the NTEA, The Work Truck Association.

Small eQuad 4-wheeler EV is used by UPS for deliveries in tight quarters. (UPS)

For some companies, particularly those with sizeable fleets, corporate sustainability targets may trump TCO’s hard numbers. But UPS’ Okuyiga said that 90% of the nation’s fleets operate fewer than 100 trucks, so most will need to see TCO figures that justify an investment in electrification.

“Fleets aren’t afraid to pay a little bit more – as long as the TCO gets at least close to diesel,” said Ken Marko, fleet sustainability manager for US Foods, a food-distribution and delivery specialist with 16,000-plus vehicles working from 70 U.S. locations. He added that infrastructure considerations have to include any vehicles’ intended duty cycle, saying recharging times can’t get in the way of when the vehicle is needed.

‘On everyone’s mind’

Andrew Okuyiga, VP of public affairs, UPS. (SAE/Bill Visnic)

The immaturity of EV charging infrastructure “is on everyone’s mind,” asserted NTEA’s Kastner. “What charging infrastructure do you actually need – and can you get the power,” are the questions he said are being asked by fleets large and small. He added that the availability of EV trucks is not an issue, with some 160 zero-emissions-capable chassis currently offered from 40 OEMs, although he noted that some 80% of current deployments are cargo vans.

US Foods’ Marko said the company established a corporate goal of a 32.5% reduction in greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions by 2032, as well as a “comprehensive assessment” of its Scope 3 emissions profile that “intends to engage key suppliers to set science-based emissions targets by 2027.”

“We’re serious about this and we’re looking at a lot of options,” Marko asserted. “A heavy emphasis is going to be on EVs.” Calling charging infrastructure the primary challenge “for any fleet starting to consider EVs,” he cautioned that the current state of the charging ecosystem requires long-term planning – and patience. “Developing infrastructure can take anything from six months to 48 months,” he said. And for fleets preparing for Class 8 EV tractors, obtaining permits and installing suitable high-power grid interconnections can take from two to four years – a timeline supported by UPS’ Okuyiga’s anecdote of his company’s ongoing wait for permitting for megawatt-level charging.

The 2024 Government/Industry session’s moderator, Mike Laughlin, technology manager in the U.S. Dept. of Energy’s (DOE) Vehicle Technologies Office technology integration program, mentioned one high-level driver for fleet-vehicle electrification is the DOE’s National Blueprint for Transportation Decarbonization. Released in January 2023 as a joint effort of the U.S. departments of Energy, Transportation and Housing and Urban Development, along with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the interagency Blueprint describes a framework of strategies and actions to remove all emissions from the transportation sector by 2050.

Laughlin noted that the trucking sector accounts for a substantial portion of the country’s total transportation-related emissions: medium- and heavy-duty vehicles represent 5% of all vehicles on the road, but are responsible for 21% of transportation emissions, the Blueprint said. Within the medium-/heavy-duty segments, about 10% of heavy trucks with high utilization are responsible for approximately 50% of the sector’s total emissions.

The National Blueprint for Transportation Decarbonization calls for a mix of EV, hydrogen and sustainable liquid fuels to meet the goal of having 30% of new truck sales be zero-emissions by 2030. And federal fleet procurement under the program is targeted to be zero-emissions by as soon as 2035 – so the emphasis on the electrification pathway for many fleets and the OEM truck and chassis manufacturers is clear.

Pain points and solutions

Mix of alternative fuels tracked by the California Air Resources Board’s Low-Carbon Fuels Standard (LCFS) program. (CARB)

US Foods’ Marko said the slow pace of installing EV recharging at its facilities led the company to try portable DC fast chargers, which “have been very successful for us.” The portable chargers “got EV trucks into service more quickly” and in some cases saved US Foods nine months while waiting for completion of complete permanent-service installations. Marko said the portable units should be considered by any fleet seeking experience with EVs without the commitment to permanent infrastructure investment – or for operations anxious to get EVs on the road without the time typically required for charging-equipment installation.

US Foods’ electrified fleet currently comprises 40 Class 8 EV tractors, eight yard tractors and four vans, Marko said. To serve those vehicles, the company’s charging infrastructure consists of five portable DC fast-charge stations and plans to add 30 permanent DC chargers – as well as 3 megawatts of service for permanent chargers.

UPS has been experimenting with all manner of alternative fuels for some time, Okuyiga said, noting that the company’s overarching sustainability goal is to be carbon-neutral by 2050. In describing the advantages and disadvantages of adopting electrification, he said that in terms of carbon reduction, renewable natural gas (RNG) “has been our most effective tool for reducing ground-fleet emissions at scale.” He said the RNG is derived from methane procured from farming operations. The UPS fleet in the U.S. has vehicles using just about every alternative fuel available, including CNG, LNG, propane and electricity.

UPS currently operates a variety of EVs ranging from its Freightliner eCascadia Class 8 tractors to small-footprint “eQuad” 4-wheelers for deliveries in close-quarter areas. The company began a relationship with EV startup manufacturer Arrival in 2016, and the global delivery giant said in 2022 it was initiating a phased purchase of 10,000 Arrival vans.

The session’s speakers said the current immaturity of charging infrastructure has made electrification a challenge, but agreed there are workarounds that can be employed to buy time as the situation improves. “Start with discrete projects – so you can learn,” advised UPS’ Okuyiga.