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The trucking industry is on a long, winding road to electrification

Richard Summers, a 30-year veteran in the long-haul trucking industry, stops to fill up his rig in Laramie, Wyo.
Will Walkey
The Mountain West News Bureau
Richard Summers, a 30-year veteran in the long-haul trucking industry, stops to fill up his rig in Laramie, Wyo.

The Petro Travel Center off Interstate 80 in Laramie, Wyo. is like a gas station on steroids. Truckers can grab fuel and a bite to eat, but they can also do their laundry, shower and play pinball or Pac-Man.

Richard Summers fuels up his rig as he makes his way from Portland, Ore. to eastern Virginia. He’s hauling two yellow shipping containers and has been trucking for three decades.

“I just enjoy traveling and getting paid to see everything nobody else gets to,” he said. “My dad was a trucker. My grandpa was a trucker. My cousins are truckers. This is just in the family blood, and it's hard to get out of it.”

Summers likes to repeat the phrase, “if you bought it, a truck brought it,” because it highlights how important long-haul drivers are to the U.S. economy. Trucks move almost 73 percent of domestic freight by weight, according to the American Truckers Association, and they traveled over 300 billion miles in 2021. The trucking industry employs more than 3.5 million drivers.

But long-haul rigs also contribute to global warming. Medium and heavy duty trucks – just 5% of vehicles on the road – are responsible for more than 20 percent of transportation emissions.

So, efforts are underway to electrify these vehicles.

At a recent event outside Reno, Nev., Tesla CEO Elon Musk unveiled the Semi, an electric vehicle that can tow tens of thousands of pounds with a range of up to 500 miles. Promotional video showed it flying by a diesel rig up a mountain pass in the Sierra Nevada range.

“If you're a truck driver and you want the most badass rig on the road, this is it,” Musk said. He added that the Semi has improved safety capabilities and can help air quality in cities.

Other companies, like Peterbilt and Volvo, are producing their own electric long-haul products. One manufacturer said it has 700 orders for zero-emissions trucks that it hopes to deliver this year, and Pepsi has made headlines for using Tesla Semis at a distribution center.

But for many truckers, the transition from diesel rigs seems like a long way off. In Laramie, Summers is unlikely to switch to something electric, mainly because of reliability and cost issues.

“We can't even keep our electrical grid going just running the air conditioner in the summertime,” he said. “So how are you going to do all the electric trucks, electric cars, run your home [and] everything else.

“It’s just not feasible right now. We don’t have the technology, And personally, I feel by the time we do, we'll come up with something better.”

Electric long-haul rigs currently cost hundreds of thousands of dollarsusually two or three times the price of their diesel counterparts. The batteries also weigh a lot, which can affect profit margins for drivers.

Lewie Pugh, Executive Vice President of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, said many members are concerned about a lack of parking and charging infrastructure on highways. Additionally, charging can sometimes take up to eight hours as opposed to about 15 minutes fueling at the pump.

“There's still a lot of unknown factors when it comes to EVs, especially in the long-haul sector,” he said. “I don't see how any trucker can go out there and buy an electric truck tomorrow and replace his internal combustion engine.”

But Pugh said many association members are feeling pressure to make changes when they aren’t ready yet. States like California and the federal government have goals to phase out emissions from heavy-duty vehicles in the next couple of decades – and potential mandates to help them get there.

Pugh is not against cleaner air, but he doesn’t want the government to put truckers in a bad position by regulating before something is feasible.

“When you're talking about our national supply chain, you can't just say, ‘Oh, we'll figure it out.’ We have to know and it has to work,” he said.

That’s why the Biden Administration is spending a lot to build charging stations and providing tax credits to companies that buy zero-emissions vehicles or build their own charging network.

Bernd Heid, senior partner with the research firm McKinsey & Company, said the U.S. needs to build about 250,000 charging outlets by 2035 to meet basic infrastructure needs for zero-emissions trucking. He also advocates for more hydrogen refueling stations – another clean energy option.

And he’s optimistic that the private and public sectors will make these investments because there are enormous incentives – beyond the climate – to electrify trucking.

“If you do a lot of mileage, you have more chances to amortize the high investment into, for example, a fuel-cell truck. So I think [for] exactly this coast-to-coast trucking, if you do the math with a fuel-cell electric truck versus a diesel truck, at a certain point that will break even,” Heid said.

As Tesla, Volvo and other companies produce more electric semis, Heid says prices will drop and they’ll become economical due to lower maintenance and fuel costs. Plus, many drivers enjoy the experience of electric trucks once they try them out.

“Our initial learning from speaking to the truck drivers, [is they] say they love it,” Heid said. “The main hurdle right now is the infrastructure. I think it's less the vehicle itself.”

Heid admitted that full-scale electrification of long-haul driving is still a long ways off. At the Petro Travel Center in Laramie, for instance, there was no charging infrastructure at all.

But zero-emissions trucking – and even autonomous trucking – could be just a few decades away.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Will Walkey