ASHWAUBENON – Schneider is about to find out how far electric trucks can take the company toward its goal of cutting carbon emissions.
The Green Bay area-based logistics giant will operate one of the largest fleets of battery electric semi-trucks in the industry beginning in 2022. A grant will help the company to buy 50 Freightliner-manufactured battery-electric trucks and put them into daily operation at an intermodal freight transfer station in Southern California.
The deployment will be one of the first large-scale tests of battery powered electric semis’ current capabilities in the nation. It is a technological leap forward that the logistics industry hasn’t seen since the late 1980s when truck engines added electronic controls, said Rob Reich, Schneider’s executive vice president and chief administrative officer.
“I would compare it to when engines first became electronic. This is such a significant step in truck technology I think it does absolutely stand out,” Reich said. “This, to me, is one of those types of significant events, from a technology standpoint, that everybody involved will remember.”
The moment is not lost on Freightliner, either. Alexander Voets, the company’s E-Mobility product marketing manager, said electrification of commercial truck fleets has gained a lot more traction in the industry since 2018, when the company unveiled two battery-electric models, the class 8 eCascadia and medium-duty eM2.
“Now, we’re at the tipping point,” Voets said. “It’s a much more accepted reality that we’re moving forward with electrification in the trucking industry.”
Freightliner is among those at the forefront of battery-electric truck technology, but the company is far from alone. Among the competitors, Volvo is also taking orders for its VNR Electric truck and Tesla continues to develop its electric Semi model, though production has been delayed into 2023.
Battery-electric technology is not the only clean, alternative fuel the trucking industry is poised to employ, said Don Ake, vice president for commercial vehicles at FTR, an analysis and consulting firm that has served the trucking industry for more than 30 years.
Toyota in August announced it would build fuel cells in Kentucky for hydrogen-powered semi-trucks beginning in 2023, for example.
The two alternatives set the industry up for a transition to low- and no-emission trucks over the next 10-plus years, Ake said.
“You will have competing technologies, but that’s a good thing. That pushes people and it will be interesting to see how that works out,” Ake said. “In the big picture, we are moving to alternative, cleaner fuels. It’s starting now and it should continue at a modest pace for awhile.”
Schneider will offset the cost of putting its electric fleet into operation with a grant from the South Coast Air Quality Management District, California Air Resources Board and the California Energy Commission. The grant program aims to jump-start deployment of zero emission semi-trucks in order to reduce carbon emissions and improve air quality.
The grant was important because the eCascadia model costs two to three times more, depending on configuration, than a diesel version, which can cost about $150,000.
“That’s where funding on this particular project is so important. It allows us to offset some of those costs and have it economically feasible to do this pilot,” Reich said.
NFI Industries, a New Jersey-based logistics company, also received a grant to add 50 battery-electric trucks to its Southern California operations at the same time Schneider does. The company is buying a mix of Freightliner and Volvo trucks.
International estimates put the global transportation industry’s annual carbon dioxide emissions at about 8.26 gigatons each year, about 26% of global carbon dioxide emissions in 2018, per the International Energy Agency. Industry analysts at FreightWaves estimated that one truck emits 223 tons of carbon dioxide each year. Zero emission commercial truck fleets will prove more effective at cutting global vehicle emissions and Voets said.
“If you want to take emissions out of the air, you get a lot more bang for your buck to electrify commercial vehicles,” Voets said.
The Southern California operation aligns with Schneider’s corporate goals and plans for future growth, too. It continues to be involved in developing the next generation of semi-truck technology, will learn the capabilities of a battery-electric fleet, and the zero emission trucks will also contribute toward the company’s goal of cutting its carbon dioxide emissions by 7.5% per mile by 2025 and 60% per mile by 2035.
“We think the future’s electric. We’re very confident that the technology will improve, we’ll improve the operating characteristics and have our best practices in place to have us prepared to grow it from here,” Reich said. “We have to show you can put these 50 trucks in and still meet the needs of the business we’re required to meet today. If we can do that, we know we can do this anywhere.”
The right truck for the job
Schneider will take delivery of the 50 eCascadia trucks and the related charging infrastructure over the next two years. The company expects the first truck to arrive in fall 2022, about the same time it will have completed building out the charging infrastructure.
The eCascadia is based on Freightliner’s Cascadia diesel model. The main engine is replaced by electric motors at each wheel and a massive battery pack is built into the truck. In all, Reich said, the eCascadia has about 1,000 fewer parts than its diesel counterpart.
Since the trucks employ clean technology, they are exempted from gross vehicle-weight limits, allowing it to go up to 82,000 pounds, load included.
Trucking companies and their customers tend to have the same questions about the battery technology as families do when they consider buying an electric or hybrid vehicle.
Details like range, time to charge, durability, maintenance, financial viability and operational differences will have Schneider’s attention.
The diesel Cascadia has a range of about 1,000 miles before it needs to refuel, a process that can take as little as 15 minutes. The electric version has a range of 200 to 250 miles before it needs a recharge; recharging takes 90 minutes to reach 80% of capacity.
Reich said that range makes the trucks ideal for use in Schneider’s Southern California intermodal operations, where the average trip is about 50 to 75 miles.
Schneider currently has 200 trucks split between San Bernardino and El Monte, where intermodal operations involve picking up freight as it arrives by sea and transferring it to rail lines for transport into the United States, or taking deliveries directly to customers in Southern California.
“It just requires us to think a little differently about how we manage the trucks and manage the driver assignments,” Reich said. “You have to figure all these things out. You can test these two or three at a time, but if you do, you don’t get the true operating impact that you get by really testing putting 50 trucks in one operation.”
Since 2020, Freightliner has put a fleet of 40 eCascadia trucks in the hands of leading trucking firms, including Schneider, for early testing. The company announced the fleet surpassed 1 million miles of operation on Oct. 5.
“It’s something we’re very proud of because electric mobility (for trucks) is maybe in its teenage years,” Voets said. “Being able to get that credibility (of real world operation), shows customers this is not just a lab test, but in the real world, on real roads, with real freight.”
Drivers enjoy the truck for its reduced vibration, lack of noise and instant torque, Reich said. Voets said the battery pack’s placement gives the truck a low center of gravity that handles corners better and gets up to speed faster than diesel trucks.
“If you sit in one of our electric trucks and put your foot down, it drives like a go-kart,” Voets said. “These vehicles are a lot of fun to drive. The driver comfort is definitely increased.”
While drivers will notice the difference behind the wheel of an electric semi-truck, Voets said the significance of the innovations may be a little harder for the general public to see.
After all, the eCascadia looks like any other semi-truck on the road today.
Freightliner, a subsidiary of Daimler, opted to give some of the earliest models a futuristic, black and glowing blue livery befitting the semi-truck of the future, Voets said.
The design has had the desired effect on the west coast, particularly in Southern California, Voets said.
“When you see this truck, it’s the future of e-mobility,” Voets said. “We wanted to do something for the person who wouldn’t recognize what’s different. That design pulls in more people and helps us educate them.”
Waiting to see what the future holds
Schneider will be busy for the next three years learning, adapting and improving the performance of the battery electric fleet. Reich said the company will watch things like operational time, maintenance needs, cost to operate, charging times and more to determine the financial viability of transitioning more of its 9,000-truck fleet to zero emission vehicles.
Reich also noted that electric trucks, as they exist today, do not have the range that’s needed to meet all of the trucking industry’s needs. He said battery-electric trucks probably will remain a short- and medium-haul solution. For medium- and long-haul operations, he also noted the promising developments in hydrogen fuel cell technology, but for now, diesel trucks are likely to remain part of logistics fleets well into the future.
“We’re absolutely looking for those breakthroughs,” Reich said
Ake said the trucks are on the same development arc as smartwatch or electric vehicles: Over many years, the technology will improve, range will increase and prices should drop. He also said it will take some time to determine how best to build out charging infrastructure the trucks will need for longer hauls.
“Years from now, when the infrastructure is there, the batteries weigh less and the cost is comparable, then you will have reached your tipping point and will have a large amount of electric vehicles on the road,” Ake said. “The bottom line is cost. You have to make money. If it turns out the hydrogen engines are more efficient and less-costly, that’s the trump card. But we’re at the beginning so we don’t know how this comes out. There’s a chance we’ll get both in the market.”
Voets said there has been strong interest in the trucks from customers so far, and that is expected to grow as grants and government policies drive transportation firms to cut carbon emissions.
Reich said Schneider’s involvement in the pilot project will give it vital, firsthand experience with the challenges and adapting to them.
“It really positions us to start to have the right conversations in other areas of the country where we’re interested in doing more of this,” Reich said.