Electrifying mid-to-long haul trucks is critical for de-carbonizing the transportation sector. According to the Congressional Budget Office, after emissions in the electric power sector declined substantially in 2017, the transportation industry became the leading source of CO2 emissions, with about 25% of the industry’s emissions coming entirely from medium and heavy-duty trucks.
Thankfully, regulatory efforts are starting to catch up with technological progress: Tesla’s Semi completed a 500-mile drive while weighing 81,000 pounds in November 2022, and the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act includes a tax credit for the purchase of electric commercial vehicles, equal to 30% of the vehicle’s purchase price up to $40,000 per unit. The Securities and Exchange Commission’s climate-related disclosures proposal is likely to be implemented, although still in development.
These are positive initiatives supporting electrification, but heavy-duty electric fleets aren’t yet realistic for most shippers given concerns around range, lack of charging infrastructure, and the price premium of an electric truck compared to its diesel alternative. As these challenges are solved, however, shippers can still work to de-carbonize their transportation supply chain by implementing these three best practices:
Promoting multi-shipper coordination. At any given time, over 30% of trucks on the road are pulling an empty trailer. This inefficiency is caused by a lack of coordination across the industry, as most shippers and carriers take a load-by-load approach to scheduling freight. To repeatedly reduce empty miles, shippers should work to move loads knowing their truck (or the truck they hire) can drive home with another load. By gaining visibility into industry-wide freight patterns, shippers can coordinate fully-loaded circuits.
Reducing dwell time. Similar to how trucks pulling empty trailers generate wasteful emissions, idling trucks also emit CO2 — and they do so without generating any value by moving freight. To minimize the amount of time trucks idle outside their facilities, shippers can improve the timeliness of loading and unloading by implementing standing appointment windows for carriers.
Preparing to electrify short hauls. While waiting for battery density and charging infrastructure to reach minimum desirable levels in order to make over-the-road (OTR) transportation viable, shippers can prepare for the future by identifying their routes most suited for electrification. For example, shippers with fleets running outbound routes around 100 miles are good candidates for return-to-base charging within the limitations of current electric trucks — a Volvo VNR Electric 6x4 Tractor with a 275-mile range could run a 200-mile round trip with miles to spare.
There are also opportunities for shippers interested in pursuing a more aggressive decarbonization plan. One of the biggest challenges to electrifying heavy-duty transportation is charging — who builds it, finances it, owns it, and where? Just look at passenger charging networks: Outside of California, charging infrastructure remains surprisingly limited, given the number of electric vehicles on the market. As an industry, we can work to avoid a similar outcome for heavy-duty trucks by proactively developing a few business models for charging:
Partnering with real estate owners. Companies with large industrial and warehouse holdings can experiment with bundling charging infrastructure into tenant leases. This might encourage tenants to purchase electric assets (or consider their viability, at minimum), or work with EV-friendly carriers.
Partnering with transportation-as-a-service companies. Companies like Forum Mobility offer heavy-duty trucks for zero emissions drayage in a monthly subscription model. Drayage makes sense for early electric adopters, given the predictable scheduling and short haul lengths. Regional short hauls may benefit from following a similar model, too.
Partnering with private fleets. A return-to-base fleet running round trips totaling approximately 250 miles could run electric, assuming grid connectivity is available. Partnership opportunities might look like:
While the challenge of decarbonizing heavy-duty freight transport is significant, there are steps shippers can take at any stage of their sustainability journey. Even shippers not currently prioritizing sustainability have the opportunity to cut costs while reducing empty miles with the help of freight coordination platforms, and shippers looking to lead the transition to electrification can begin investing in the required assets and infrastructure today. Ultimately, practices that offer repeatable and scalable decarbonization — particularly those that serve shippers’ long-term financial interests — are essential for reducing the carbon intensity of hauling freight.
Matthew Komorowski is head of product marketing at Leaf Logistics.
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