Hight Logistics owner Rudy Diaz lives in Colorado, but his fleet of five battery-electric units and around 50 leased owner-operators in traditional diesel trucks operates out of Long Beach, California, serving the ports for drayage services. The company got its start in 2011 as a one-man show.
By 2014, his work moving containers from the ports and contracting with owner-operators was such that he began to beef up office staff beyond just himself. "By 2018 we were a full-blown operation," he said. By the time the pandemic hit, Hight was at the approximate size it is today, with 50 owner-operators pulling and 30 employees in total.
With rumblings around mandates for electrification in California that same year and the next, particularly with regard to drayage fleets, Diaz engaged with the Forum Mobility power-services company in 2021 to begin exploring possibilities for electric-drive trucks.
Forum Mobility is a start-up with a good deal of venture and other capital behind it, and a plan coming to fruition to build charging stations open to dray operators for overnight and other charging in Southern and Northern California. "A third-party network of chargers makes sense" given the array of small fleets working ports in California today, said Forum Senior Vice President Rob Kelley. "We have six sites under development right now, four in Southern California and two North around the Port of Oakland.
At "those six we already do have site control," meaning work is under way, added Forum's Ron Hunt. The company also has plans for as many as a dozen additional sites with 600 power dispensers at each.
Before the end-of-year deadline for registering diesel trucks with the California Air Resources Board to work the ports (after the first of the year, new units put in place must be ZEVs), "I saw the writing on the wall," said Hunt. Building electric trucks "is great, but until you have infrastructure they’re not going to be usable." In his work with fleets and public utilities, Hunt puts emphasis on "going out and educating, de-stressing, guiding and consulting."
Dray operations will be the tip of the spear in California's aggressive moves toward truck electrification, the only significant no-diesel mandate currently throughout the nation. "How much do they cost?" Hunt notes a central question he and Forum aim to help operators answer. "How much does it take to charge? How much do they weigh?"
With those questions, dray operations like Diaz and Hight Logistics "have a much bigger problem to battle than just regulatory deadlines," Hunt said.
To tackle those 'bigger problems,' Hight invests in the future
When Hight started talking to Forum, specialists with the company realized quickly that his facility in Long Beach already had power capabilities sufficient to offer a sort of proof of concept for the company. Now, "we've got one site" live behind Hight's gate, said Forum Mobility Senior Vice President Rob Kelly. "Chargers have been running since December."
Diaz and company have "four chargers with two dispensers each," meaning each individual unit is capable of charging two trucks at once, Diaz said. The company thus "can charge eight trucks at any given time."
As for the trucks, all are operated under lease with Forum. "We have a focused target market of the drayage industry," said Hunt, and though the company does offer the lease option, "we don’t push that as a requirement – if they want to end up leasing through us as a package they can do that," as does Diaz today for the five battery-electric rigs Hight's running. For power consumption and access to Forum's future sites, Hunt envisions a "subscription only" model for fleets and owner-operators, he added. There's "no retail" service there, meaning all dispensers are reserved for subscribers. "They lock in their spots and make sure they have the spots" to park and charge.
Rudy Diaz is today running BYD (Build Your Dreams, a Chinese manufacturer with some U.S. operations in California) and Volvo VNR daycab models, though he noted he did have one of the Kenworth company's battery-electric trucks in January.
In his case, the charging infrastructure was in place prior to delivery of the trucks under lease, given a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by the mayor of Long Beach and other dignitaries happened at his shop back in September 2022. "We were Forum's pilot program," essentially, Diaz said. "We were almost the ideal candidate because we had the power to do it and it was a fast process relative to others," though it took "almost two years. ... It’s a slow process."
Diaz declined to disclose his own lease costs per truck, but noted that, electric power included, an individual owner might get into a truck with the company at a rate between $5,500 and $6,500 monthly -- that's not spending a dime on diesel, mind you, if you're making that comparison.
Prices for these units are extremely high for individual buyers, Diaz said, "even more expensive now" that more fleets are stepping into the game and order backlogs are the norm. He noted costs of $350K-$450K individually, though incentives through California's grant programs are part of Forum's service to fleets like his. Per-unit, "grant money up to $100K to $200K," he said, can "make the price easier to swallow. For me, the partnership with Forum is important" with regard to grants. "I’m not a grant guy."
Rather than working through discussions and forms with Calstart, Forum Mobility took on "that process to get the grant money" as part of their service, Diaz said. "For most small companies, that would be a full-time guy" hired and working solely in the back office just to "bring the price down. ... The Forum partnership took away that component for us."
Diaz is responsible for all insurances related to the trucks' operation, including physical damage, an eye-opener given the high value of these units. "Physical damage on a $400,000 truck is huge," he said.
He reckons the diesel cost savings makes up for the added expense, in the end, for his operation. Speaking in late summer, Diaz was looking at $5.33/gallon diesel in California, or an at least $1,000 weekly outlay for fuel alone for an average unit. ("We're not double-seating the trucks," he said.) $1,500 weekly is a possibility for many -- run a dray rig that much, and that's $6,000 monthly, offsetting much of the lease/subscription cost, which includes power for the electric rigs.
For the first time, Hight is employing company drivers for its electric units, forming a "Hight Electric" separate company with a website to market to customers needing to satisfy internal directives to use cleaner transportation or CARB's mandates for large facilities to use growing percentages of cleaner vehicles for transport needs.
"Some have come to us as part of their plans to limit their environmental footprint" already, Diaz said, particularly after word of their integration of electric vehicles was featured in this story in the technology-focused Wired magazine in May this year. "We’re seeing some demand where they're interested in us moving their freight. It’s opened up opportunity for us to take on some business that otherwise may not even have been available."
Battery-electric range has been a limiting factor, nonetheless, particularly when moving containers from Long Beach out to the Inland Empire area. Given no slip-seating happening with Hight, by and large, "we're charging overnight and they come back in the morning and get their trucks," Diaz said. "We do have one fast-charger that can charge in two hours."
With that charger, the company's used one truck in two shifts occasionally. "Return back to base by four" in the afternoon, charge in two hours, he said, "and have a guy do a second shift. We have done it with one truck, and it works. Locally. If you're getting out to Inland, finding a facility to charge out there and top off if you need to" isn't a guarantee.
The rigs he's running today have an approximate 150-mile range. He was hopeful to take delivery of some second-generation Volvo VNR electric models with 230 miles of range later this year.