Biden wants the United States to be a net zero carbon economy by 2050. To do so, he must first make the electric sector carbon free, which he wants to do by 2035, and then electrify everything else, including electric cars and trucks. But electric trucks could pose a potential engineering problem: the batteries and other parts needed for them could weigh up to 5,300 pounds more than diesel components, which is a problem for the nation’s roads and bridges. California is planning to become the first state in the nation to put hundreds of thousands of electric trucks on the road within 25 years and plans to use legal weight limits and technology to control the burden of the increased weight.
According to a study by the University of California’s Institute of Transportation Studies, long-haul electric trucks with a range of 300 miles are expected to be 5,328 pounds heavier than fossil-fuel versions in 2030. Short-haul and medium-duty box delivery electric trucks are expected to weigh 1,400 extra pounds. Batteries are heavy because the chemicals and materials in battery cells are densely packed and have a good amount of mass. Based on average market penetration, the batteries on electric trucks in 2030 could collectively equal 59.3 million pounds. Future technology is expected to reduce that weight by almost 1,000 pounds by 2050. Also, adding tires and axles to the largest trucks could spread the load more evenly to reduce stress on roads and bridges.
Another issue for trucking companies is the price of the electric trucks: a new electric semi is projected to cost $215,000 in 2030, compared to $148,000 for a diesel-powered long-hauler. Electric trucks, however, are expected to cost less per mile to operate than diesel trucks and require less maintenance over the life of the vehicle.
Status among the States
California announced last summer that it would require manufacturers to sell more electric trucks starting in 2024. Its zero-emission rules vary by truck weight, from 5 percent to 9 percent of sales in 2024, up to 40 percent to 75 percent of sales in 2035. By 2045, California’s requirement is for 100 percent of truck sales to be electric, independent of the class. California allows fully loaded trucks up to 80,000 pounds, and alternative fuel trucks receive a 2,000-pound waiver, allowing them to max out at 82,000 pounds.
Fifteen states and the District of Columbia are planning to increase the national market for electric medium- and heavy-duty trucks, including long-haul vehicles, school buses, and box trucks. These states, which include Colorado, Massachusetts, and Washington, set a goal of having 100 percent clean truck sales by 2050—with an interim goal of 30 percent of sales by 2030. A New York bill awaiting signature by the governor would codify a state goal of 100 percent medium- and heavy-duty truck zero-emission sales.
And at the federal level, President Joe Biden signed executive orders to replace 50,000 diesel transit vehicles, electrify 20 percent of the nation’s school bus fleet, and direct his agencies to develop a clean fleets plan for federal, state, local, and tribal governments. That includes the U.S. Postal Service, which has 230,000 vehicles.
Poor Condition of Roads, Bridges
Last year the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the U.S. a “C-” grade on its infrastructure report card, with bridges earning a “C” and roads a “D.” About 40 percent of U.S. roads are in poor condition. Over half of the nation’s 618,000 bridges are rated fair or poor, with 8 percent deemed structurally deficient. West Virginia, Iowa, and Rhode Island have the most bridges in poor condition, which generally means parts of the deck or structures are deteriorating. More weight can cause potholes and cracks, water penetration and road deterioration, and extra pounds on bridges can stress the structure.
Electric light-duty pickups, delivery, box, and bucket trucks are expected to exceed the market for internal combustion engine vehicles in 2033. Medium-duty trucks are expected to take longer to penetrate the market. Heavy-duty trucks like tractor trailers are expected to represent about 7 percent of the market by 2035. Long-haul all-electric models are still years off because the range of today’s batteries would require charging stops every four or five hours, which would clash with strict road-hour limits for drivers.
An issue affecting market penetration for light-duty pick-ups is towing capability. For example, the Ford F-150 Lightning, which will be available for purchase next year, has a targeted range of between 230 miles (standard battery) and 300 miles (extended battery). The pick-up can tow up to 10,000 pounds, according to Ford, but how much the range will decrease when hauling or towing is uncertain. The truck weighs 6,500 pounds. Adding 10,000 pounds of tow will require significantly more power. For this reason, the F-150 Lightning will come equipped with ‘Intelligent Range’, which predicts range due to factors such as payload, towing information and weather so the driver can determine how many miles are available on a charge.
How much damage the additional weight from long-haul trucks on U.S. roads and bridges could cause is hard to quantify. But it is likely to make the current C and D ratings for U.S. bridges and roads worse and the job to fix them harder with the additional weight expected in the future. Mandating electric vehicles and particularly electric trucks as 15 states and the District of Columbia have proposed to do is foolish, particularly if the states have infeasible plans for making their electric sector carbon free. Added to this is the fact that roads and bridges are maintained, repaired and replaced with fuel taxes, which electric vehicles currently do not pay. If electric vehicle trucks are compelling choices for economic reasons, they should be able to compete against gasoline and diesel vehicles without mandates.