Electrification and the Proposed Infrastructure Plan: Talking Tech with Truckers

Monday, April 12, 2021

Steve is a frequent guest on Sirius XM Radio’s Road Dog Trucking, hosted by Mark Willis. Following is a lightly edited excerpt from his April 1 appearance.

Steve Sashihara: Fortuitously, we added electric trucks to our survey this year. The president’s proposed infrastructure plan is very heavy on electric vehicles, and I think trucking will get its share.

Mark Willis: Let’s talk about that. What did the numbers look like from the survey respondents? Was it better or less than 50 percent that EVs will have a moderate impact by maybe four or five years from now?

Steve: Only 35 percent said that they would have a large or moderate impact by 2025. Personally, I’m pretty strong on electric vehicles for local pickup and delivery—package vans, that sort of transport. I’m more skeptical about Class 8, although there are people saying they are going to do that.

Mark: The Class 8 marketplace for the long‑distance, over‑the‑road driver. But if the president’s plan comes to be, there will be electric vehicle charging stations pretty much everywhere. There would have to be the infrastructure, the charging stations, to support that, right?

Steve: This may help drive down the cost of the batteries. Secondly, the infrastructure isn’t just charging stations, but repair stations. If you’re driving an electric vehicle down an interstate and you’ve got a problem, you’re not making any money while it’s getting repaired.

Mark: You would have to acquire property to put up electric vehicle charging stations. Did many of the respondents to the survey indicate that they’re willing to make that kind of investment, maybe putting in electric vehicles for their fleets? I know FedEx is doing that. I know UPS is adding things like electric vehicles. Do you foresee major dollars invested into this?

Steve: Yes. We see companies that are depot‑based—like the package side of UPS or FedEx Ground, where the trucks return to the depot—putting in charging stations, and that makes a lot of sense. It’s the long‑haul, over‑the‑road drivers that you've got to wonder about. Not even a JB Hunt or Schneider is in the position to start buying real estate along the highway. They’re going to rely on others for that.

Mark: Do you think this is going to be more public‑private partnerships going forward, more states putting more money into the electric vehicle marketplace? Did the respondents give you any feedback on that?

Steve: The highways are federal. At the state level, maybe some of the dollars, depending on what strings are attached, will go to buses and transit, and maybe less commercial transport.

Mark: First up, we're going to go to Jeremy in Washington. What do you see?

Jeremy: Thanks for taking my call. I’m sort of a transportation enthusiast. I was fighting the idea of electrification for a long time and eventually reached the point where I think it is going to make a lot more sense. The way I see things happening is once we get wireless charging online to where you could have a pull‑off where you maintain speed, use the smart tag receiver on your windshield, like we have now to pay for tolls, and use that to pay. You just take the exit and run parallel to the road for a brief period, and recharge your battery. Essentially, you don’t fill it up. When you pull over to sleep, you’ll hook up to a charging station, do a complete top‑off, but along the way you can have these parallel wireless charging operations to keep things going. I think that’s how you end up getting long‑haul trucking moved over to electrification.

Mark: That’s a great point. If those charging stations are going to be readily available, traveling down the roadway, Steve, that might be one of the keys for more buy‑in from the over‑the‑road market for electrification.

Steve: As Jeremy’s pointing out, you have to think of the whole picture, one of which is how much time for refueling. Most of us know that for even the best high‑density chargers, the brand‑new Tesla Series 3, it’s six hours to bring even a car up to speed. That would be unacceptable. Like I said, for daily package delivery, the vehicle may be sitting overnight, when you can charge that. For an over‑the‑road driver, I don’t see that working. There are innovative ideas out there, like the one Jeremy mentioned. Some ideas are ordinary, such as a system where you just pull out the battery pack and put in a brand new one. Another idea is hydrogen fuel cells. People that are behind hydrogen claim that you can tank up about the same speed as you can tank up with diesel. Literally, a nozzle goes in. You burn acid, and it just fills you up. That technically is an electric vehicle because you’re not burning the hydrogen. The hydrogen is running a generator, which is creating electricity.

Mark: Let’s go to Mr. Whistler. You’re on with Steve Sashihara. What’s your view?

Mr. Whistler: I think the electric truck thing will work. I don’t know why they can’t put a diesel‑fired generator on there just to charge the battery. A lot of people are going with that now. You figure, like my truck, I carry 220 gallons of fuel. You take that off there and put on a 50‑gallon tank, and you could keep that thing charged forever.

Mark: Multiple use, in other words. Steve, with the electric trucks, that’s a good point about whether there’s going to be maybe a dual use, switching from electric to a traditional fossil fuel like diesel. Any survey comments about that?

Steve: That’s essentially how a hydrogen fuel cell works: not using diesel, using hydrogen. It’s basically running a generator. One of the big pushes behind the infrastructure plan is the green side, so low emissions. If you’re burning diesel, even to run a power generator, you’re technically electric but you’re not going to get the benefit of low emissions which is motivating a lot of people. When you run a hydrogen fuel cell, you just get water out of it, and there are no emissions. I like the thinking: “Hey, remember how when we first got the Prius hybrid gas‑electric?” Some people are saying, “How would that play in the commercial market? If your battery runs out, you can flip over.” But most people I talk to just can’t see it—it’s kind of the worst of both worlds. You would need all the equipment and weight of a traditional unit. One of the problems with electrifying long‑haul is the batteries currently are pretty heavy. It would reduce the usefulness of a Class 8 tractor if you limit it to 20,000 pounds, just to make up a number. If you can’t haul a full 30,000-33,000 load, I think a lot of drivers, at least owner‑ops, would say, “Forget that.”

Mark: Let’s go to Master Sergeant 117.

Master Sergeant 117: All this electronic stuff is good and dandy, but who’s going to be working on them? You're going to have to have a technician on board to diagnose what's going on with the truck. When it goes to the yard, who’s going to solve the problem?

Mark: What do you think, Steve? Where are we going to find the techs for this stuff?

Steve: He’s absolutely right. Part of the infrastructure we were talking about earlier was charging stations, but you’ve got to have people, that tech. A couple of things I will say. One is that electric vehicles have a lot fewer moving parts than conventional vehicles. Think about this as a job creator. This is an opportunity for people to get into high tech, keeping the vehicles running and diagnosing them. They’re all very computer‑driven. The diagnosis, you plug in the computer, pretty much like today, and it gives you a readout. If you’re long‑haul, the techs will have to be sprinkled everywhere. If you’re running out of a depot, you've got to have them at the depot.

Mark: Steve, I'm reading a press release from a couple of days ago from an electric vehicle charging network. An initiative will leverage a billion dollars in public‑private capital to deploy charging in more than 4,000 travel plazas, fuel stops, serving highway travelers, rural communities nationwide by 2030. Do you think that we will see more of the partnerships like this going forward to put these charging stations in?

Steve: Definitely. Most charging networks are oriented toward hopefully a big surge in passenger traffic using electric vehicles. As your listeners probably have heard, a lot of the legacy carriers are now saying, "We’re going to be completely electric by 2030.” It’s a niche now, but that’s where a lot of infrastructure is coming. The problem is that a large truck is going to have a lot of battery to charge. We’ll probably need a different system for large trucks.

Mark: Steve, thank you for joining me on the program. No doubt, we are in a world of change when it comes to the trucking industry.

To discuss freight transportation disruptors like electric trucks with Steve, email us to set up a call.