October 5, 2023

Maneuvering multiple supply chains key to electric truck charging


The question of which comes first — the chicken or the egg — applies to the supply chain for electrifying commercial vehicles.

The answer is both.

Electric trucks, especially Class 4-6 models — box trucks, single axle, tandem axle and yard tractors to name a few — are rapidly replacing gasoline and diesel-fueled models. Getting overnight charging installed is relatively easy, and studies show total cost of ownership in some instances already meets or exceeds internal combustion engine-powered vehicles.

Startups and legacy companies have flooded the space, seeing an easy path to solid revenue from upfitting an existing truck or starting fresh with an electric chassis topable with any number of bodies for a range of uses.

The heavier lift is Class 6-8 trucks, with a driving range still limited to 150 to 300 miles between charges. That’s good enough for drayage work, such as from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to California’s warehouse and distribution center-packed Inland Empire. The range also works for repeatable package pickup and delivery routes and grocery distribution.

But without a major breakthrough in the energy density of batteries, battery-electric transportation is constrained. Like passenger vehicles, which have a seven-year head start, range anxiety — the fear of being stranded with a dead battery — is very real.

Startups like TerraWatt, WattEV and Voltera are buying and leasing property to build out a public charging infrastructure for commercial vehicles that also could serve passenger vehicles. They offer various as-a-service models including all-in truck leasing, or just a monthly all-in charge for electricity.

Pandemic led car and truck manufacturers to compete for components

The COVID pandemic impacted advanced powertrains for electric commercial vehicles much the same as it did passenger cars, which are rising in popularity but still in just the high single digits of light vehicles sold.

“On the vehicle side, I think everyone’s starting to catch their breath a little bit from the supply chain shortage,” said Rich Mohr, vice president of fleet solutions at electric services company ChargePoint Inc. “They had orders backed up for almost two and a half years. The Class 8 production backlog was probably the highest it’s been since we’ve been in the industry.”

It also didn’t help that the auto and truck manufacturers were chasing the same components — microchips, cable, circuit boards and SIM cards — from the same suppliers.

Long lead times for charging infrastructure

Some amount of finger pointing accompanies any shortage or supply chain disruption. Utilities that bring the power to the door often get caught in the crosshairs.

“Everyone talks about the utilities taking a long time, which we’re finding not to be the case,” Mohr said. “We’re finding that they’re really challenged on the switchgear side to be able to start doing new services into the sites.”

Switchgear is a centralized collection of circuit breakers, fuses and switches, or circuit protection devices, that protect, control and isolate electrical equipment behind a metal panel. The bigger the project, the harder to acquire the switchgear. Lead times ranged from 40 to 80 weeks. That’s come down some, but switchgear is still a long-lead item.

Electric truck purchases and charging going hand in hand

Fleets purchasing electric trucks have gotten the message from early adopters: Order your charging needs when you order your truck. 

“That’s definitely the model because what they don’t want is a fleet customer who comes and wants to buy a certain amount of trucks. Then they say, ‘What about charging?’ and the OEM says, ‘You’re on your own.’ It is an overall solution we’re seeing from the OEMs and also the dealers, said Jon Leichester, vice president of fleet for software-as-a-service company EV Connect.

Volvo Trucks North America is requiring a certain level of hand holding when a customer wants to order a Class 8 VNR. Volvo’s Gold package covers the truck, the charging needs, maintenance and a host of other things a fleet operator unfamiliar with electrification might not even know to ask.

“If you think about the standard fleet manager or operations manager, they have not really had to deal with the energy or infrastructure side of it,” Leichester said. “It’s not the same as running an internal combustion fleet. Your fleet manager is probably going to become more of an energy manager as well as a fleet manager.”

Incentives line the route to electrification

Federal and state financial incentives are plentiful for both vehicles and infrastructure, offsetting some of the inevitable supply chain bumps.

California is the most aggressive in offering vouchers to offset the upfront cost of an electric vehicle. It has spent hundreds of millions collected in pollution fines to cover 20% or more of the purchase cost, which for a Class 8 truck can be two or three times the price of a diesel tractor.

The Hybrid and Zero-Emission Truck and Bus Voucher Incentive Project (HVIP) offers as much as a $167,000 credit on a zero tailpipe emission Class 8 truck used for drayage and located in a high-pollution area like those around California ports. For a truly zero-emission hydrogen fuel cell truck — in which the only emission is water vapor — that can be as much as $288,000 per unit.

Other states like New York that signed on to follow California’s strict emission standards are offering similar incentives.

As part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the federal government earmarked $5 billion for a National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Formula Program focused on developing EV charging stations along designated Alternative Fuel Corridors on the nation’s interstates. As of August, all 50 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico had applied for funds.

The California Energy Commission in February ponied up $30 million to build fast-charging stations in disadvantaged, low-income and tribal communities in eastern California, the Central Valley and the Central Coast.

Not so fast on high-speed charging

ChargePoint’s Mohr said few commercial fleets are investing in high-speed charging.

“The demand for higher power, just for the sake of having higher power, doesn’t exist,” he said. “What they are looking for is: ‘How do we put power in the ground to be able to serve the application that makes sense from a capex standpoint?’”

NFI Industries, an early adopter that tested first-generation electric trucks from Daimler Truck’s Freightliner and Volvo Trucks North America, is assembling 350-kilowatt chargers in Ontario, California, to service an electric fleet that will cover all its drayage routes in the state by the end of the year.

But it’s too soon for any truck to take on 350kW charging. So NFI is splitting the charge into twin 175kW chargers that the second-generation eCascadias and VNR Electrics can handle.

Click for more FreightWaves articles by Alan Adler.


The second annual F3: Future of Freight Festival will be held in Chattanooga, “The Scenic City,” this November. F3 combines innovation and entertainment — featuring live demos, industry experts discussing freight market trends for 2024, afternoon networking events, and Grammy Award-winning musicians performing in the evenings amidst the cool Appalachian fall weather.

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