Can Semi Trucks Be Electric?

white semi trucks lined up in a truck parking lot

You may or may not have noticed an increase in “green” or eco-friendly options for a variety of things. Some restaurants, for example, besides sourcing locally grown ingredients, are working towards using biodegradable or reusable food and drink containers for to-go orders. Vehicle manufacturers now offer hybrid and even fully electric cars to lessen the reliance on fossil fuels and the harmful byproducts that come from burning them. 

But what about trucks? Is it possible to have a semi-truck, for example, that runs at least part of the time on electricity? After all, if you’re already wondering if it’s worth investing in a semi-truck, it would help to know what factors you may need to consider on top of the ones you already know about. So let’s take a look at the possibility of electric semi-trucks.

The Electric Vehicle Trend

Electric Vehicles or EVs make up a relatively small percentage of the vehicle market, but they’re a big topic in the auto industry because of how the sales numbers have steadily climbed. In the first quarter of 2022, there was a 60% jump in battery-electric vehicle registrations. Given that there was a 15.3% decline in new vehicle sales in the same quarter, the increase in battery-electric vehicle registrations is especially significant. 

Even when looking at it from the point of view of a single manufacturer, the overall picture is the same: overall new vehicle sales decreased, but sales of EVs saw a notable increase. Whether this is because of rising gas prices, a desire to take the next step in ecofriendliness or both those reasons is unclear. What is certain, however, is that consumers are more than willing to invest in electric vehicles if they see that it’s worthwhile. 

Electric Big Rigs

From the different Tesla models to Ford’s Mach-E, most electric vehicles you’ve heard about are, more often than not, sedans and SUVs. In other words, they’re your average family car. Maybe there’s a minivan thrown in here and there, but for the most part, these vehicles run on only four wheels. Electric trucks, however, are proving a little slower to make their way into the market. 

But that’s not to say they don’t already exist in some form. Volvo is working on producing its VNR Electric Class 8 trucks, and Freighliner has a demo fleet of about 40 electric trucks. If anything, electric medium-sized trucks are apt to be on the market first. While not exactly the big rig you may be looking for, it’s proof that manufacturers are working to surmount the biggest obstacle to electrically powered trucks: the amount of power consumed. 

As they currently stand, manufacturers can reliably produce electric medium–duty trucks under 26,000 pounds, especially if they’re meant for short, local runs. Heavier trucks, on the other hand, may take a while. Besides the huge amount of power needed to run, such models may need a bigger payload. All in all, truck manufacturers will have to go through a lot of trial and error before they find ways to balance everything needed to have a reliable electric semi-truck.

Current Models

As mentioned above, Freightliner has a demo fleet of electric vehicles, including the eCascadia, the eM2, and the Walk-In Van. 

The eCascadia is the only Class 8 truck in that fleet, based – as the name implies – on the Cascadia frame, Freightliner’s most successful heavy-duty long-distance truck. This electric semi-truck has power ranging from 360 to 525 hp, with a GVWR of up to 82,000 pounds, and a battery capacity of up to 475 Kwh (that’s almost five Tesla Model S sedans). This apparently gives it a range of about 250 miles. Charging the battery to 80% capacity takes about 90 minutes – enough time for an owner-operator to take a nap or have lunch.

The Freightliner eM2, meanwhile, is a Class 6-7 truck, with a GVWR ranging from 26,000 to 33,000 pounds. Battery capacity is noticeably less than that of the eCascadia (316 kWh compared to the latter’s 475 kWH), but it has a range of up to 230 miles. Charging up to 80% of battery capacity takes around an hour. 

The Walk-In Van is a step van that’s been offered by Freightliner Custom Chassis since 2010. The one on the demo fleet is an MT50e, and it’s currently in production. This vehicle sees a peak hp of 303 on a battery capacity of 220 kWH and a range of 125 miles. So far, this is the best application for an EV; step vans are used mostly for local deliveries, and 125 miles is plenty to work with even in a big city. 

To Invest or No?

To make a long story short, semi trucks can be electric, but they aren’t widely available on the market just yet. A manufacturer may have at least one model available that they’re taking orders for, but that means they have yet to mass-produce said model. 

Given all that, it’s clear that fleet managers and owner-operators will want to carefully consider the total cost of ownership, or TCO, when getting an electric-powered semi truck. For your average diesel-powered truck, the TCO can be quite hefty, which is why some owner-operators opt for used trucks instead of new ones. It follows, then, that the TCO for an electric-powered semi-truck can be up to three times as much as that of a diesel-powered one. That’s not to say an electric drivetrain won’t eventually pay for itself. At this point, though, it’s anyone’s guess as to how long that will take.