Battery-electric's trucking reality -- parking shortage will 'look a whole lot worse'

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Updated Jan 17, 2023

In a previous edition of Overdrive Radio, News Editor Matt Cole dug into the American Transportation Research Institute's close look at the life-cycle emissions associated with the production and operation of diesel, battery-electric and hydrogen-powered trucks. As noted in the very title of that past episode -- "How politics and PR cloud 'zero-emissions' reality" -- the research in some ways cut through the hype around electric-vehicle technology, showing such vehicles would be no air-quality panacea when production-associated demands are considered, particularly for battery-electric trucks: 

[Related: Will battery-electric trucks end up a 'black eye' on environmental benefits?]

In today's edition, Cole talks with Jeff Short, ATRI vice president, about follow-up research that poses something of a counterfactual on the way toward throwing down more cold-hard reality around vehicle electrification.

Howes logoOverdrive Radio sponsor Howes is offering a prize pack including bottles of anti-gel fuel treatments Diesel Treat and Diesel Lifeline, among other things, to those who leave a voicemail on the podcast message line. Leave your name and address and we'll get it to your doorstep: 615-852-8530.If the entirety of the U.S. vehicle fleet, from owner-operators' heavy tractor-trailers on down to passengers cars, were to suddenly be transitioned to battery-electric, what level of electric power generation would it take? What kind of materials demands would come with all those batteries? What, fundamentally, would the implications be for truckers’ operational realities (including the hours of service) and the infrastructure needs to support them?

As Cole notes at the top of the edition, that infrastructure would necessarily include a whole lot of new electrified parking spaces. "If every truck has to stop and charge," he said, "obviously you've got to have a charger pretty much at every parking spot across the country, and there's already a parking shortage."

Further, if every tractor out there had to stop to charge on the regular for hours at a time, "that parking shortage is only going to look a whole lot worse." Take a listen: 


Matt Cole: If every truck has to stop and charge at some point, obviously you've got to have a charger pretty much at every parking spot across the country and there's already a parking shortage, so if you have to sit and charge for five hours, four or five hours depending, that parking shortage is only going to look a whole lot worse, and ATRI gets at that a little bit in this report.

Todd Dills: The voice you heard there was that of Overdrive news editor Matt Cole picking up on a fairly new report from ATRI. That's the American Transportation Research Institute, with a report out now that picked up on parking challenges themes, it's called “Charging Infrastructure Challenges for the US Electric Vehicle Fleet.” It poses something of a counterfactual on the way toward throwing some more cold hard reality on top of the big political and PR push toward vehicle electrification. If the entirety of the US vehicle fleet, from our heavy tractor trailers on down to passenger cars, were to suddenly be transitioned to all electric, what level of electric power generation would it take? What sorts of new materials would be required to make all those batteries? What fundamentally would the implications be for truckers' operational realities, including the hours of service and all that parking and the infrastructure needs to support them?

I'm Todd Dills, your host for this edition of the Overdrive Radio Podcast for January 13th, 2023. Lucky Friday the 13th as it were, and we'll drop into and out of variously two conversations, one that Matt Cole had with ATRI Vice President Jeff Short about the three big challenge areas the report digs into, attempting to quantify the needs and to cut through the hype around battery electric vehicles. As it stands today, the challenges are huge, no doubt, particularly when it comes to these estimated power needs of freight hauling truck tractors, which alone would use the equivalent of a full 10% of all electricity generated in the entire nation today if suddenly running battery-electric.

ATRI's report is focused squarely on that battery electric technology, mind you. But in the second conversation you'll hear parts of today between myself and Cole, other alternative power technologies with some promise also reared their heads. Those I know owner operators have decidedly more interest in. Given possibilities of onboard power generation with hydrogen fuel cell or other technologies, seemingly key for long haul feasibility without the wholesale outfitting of every parking space in the nation with an EV hookup that Cole noted at the top.

While a close look at battery electric vehicles might seem like a bit of a snoozer given the miles range available today on a single charge isn't close to meeting the daily demands of most owner-operators. There's a value in the realities this report exposes in my view, Cole's too.

Matt Cole: The research they do is valuable to the industry as a whole and I think it's good to get that perspective out there. The people making the decisions will see this thing and whether it makes an impact or not, I don't know.

Todd Dills: On the other side of a break for this word, Overdrive Radio sponsor, Howes, we’ll jump right into more of the potential bedrock value. Likewise, the meat of the estimates ATRI's made and what it all could mean for the future of diesel and electric trucking power generation.

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Todd Dills: I think there's value in this report in that it just puts a lot of hard reality behind what's otherwise been just a lot of electric vehicle boosterism that we've seen for the past couple of years now, and that's in line with all the work that they've done this past year on the electric vehicle situation in general as it relates to transportation. I wonder if you can set us up, Matt, and give us a little bit of background on this report and where it sits in relation to the other work that ATRI's done that we actually did feature on this podcast as well back, I believe in the summer or maybe it was the spring of this past year.

Matt Cole: Yeah, so basically this report that was released in early December is the second of two big reports that ATRI conducted looking at electric vehicles, particularly trucks. When the report was released, I spoke with Jeff Short, he's a vice president with ATRI. He talked about the different aspects of the report. The first one was released in May and it looked at the full lifecycle emissions of a battery electric truck from the mining of the materials to the production of the truck through the use of the truck and then to recycling the batteries and all that and compared that to today's diesel internal combustion engine. And it also looked at other power options like hydrogen fuel cell.

Todd Dills: The voice you'll hear next is that of ATRI vice president Jeff Short.

Jeff Short: Our research advisory committee, they saw last year that truck electrification was an increasingly important topic, enough so that two EV related research studies were selected as top priorities. The first study, which came out in May, looked at vehicle CO2 emissions comparing an electric truck with a traditional truck and found only a 30% decrease in CO2 could be realized across a long haul vehicle's lifecycle, but that includes building the battery, that includes of course running the vehicle for a million miles and so on and so forth. So it was only a 30% decrease. That was really looking at the truck itself.

Matt Cole: This report that was released in December looks at the electric infrastructure challenges, both the electric grid itself, the challenges of mining. The materials needed to create enough batteries to transition not only the truck fleet but the USS vehicle fleet as a whole from fossil fuels to electric.

Jeff Short: The goal of this more recent research was to assess the infrastructure requirements of the trucking industry and of electrification of the quantifying those requirements. We ultimately offered insight into the near term feasibility of truck electrification. There's a lot of information out there regarding what will and will not work for trucking, and what we did was find quantifiable answers to many of the questions that have been floating around with for years.

Todd Dills: Challenge area number one, electricity demand and production.

Jeff Short: The first challenge is generation of electricity, of course. For trucking energy must be reliable, affordable, and available. The price must be predictable and not widely fluctuates throughout the day. With all that said, EVs are going to put an enormous amount of demand on utilities, which could be problematic.

Todd Dills: I was looking at the power demands chart when it comes to the truck type that's in this report and it's pretty amazing the volume or the sheer kilowatt hours of power that are estimated to be required by the folks that we're talking about here in our audience, the truck and tractor combinations.

Matt Cole: That's a lot of power to fully transition. That's just focusing on trucks and the trucks were like 14% more power would need to be generated compared to today's, and then-

Todd Dills: And tractor trailers is the lion’s share of that by a long shot, over just your heavy duty straight trucks and medium duty and light duty trucks. Gosh, I think it's like, I'm just doing back of the envelope calculation here, but it's probably three times the amount of power of all three of those groups put together.

Jeff Short: As many of you've heard, we found that US electricity infrastructure is on the older side, it's often exposed to events that cause outages. They'd be weather events, manmade events like we had in the past week.

Matt Cole: Our conversation was just a couple of days after there was an attack on two electrical substations in North Carolina and that incident just showed the, I guess, the fragility of the power grid, how easily it can be impacted by pretty much anything. I mean weather or a manmade issue like that one, it's pretty interesting timing.

Jeff Short: At the same time, demand for electricity is going to explode with full electrification. Our calculations indicate that electric vehicle electricity demand itself for all vehicles in the US, will equal 40% of what is produced today. If we were to replace the entire US vehicle fleet instantly, we will have 40% more consumption, which means we need to make more.

Matt Cole: How is that attainable? Obviously we’ve got to generate it from somewhere. What are the options there?

Jeff Short: Well, for trucking specifically, utilities across the country, will need to produce more than 500 billion kilowatt hours annually. That for trucking alone is 14% of the electricity generation. Long haul trucks, they will require about 10% of today's electricity. That's because trucks are heavier. They rack up large mileage figures each year. A car might get 10,000 miles a year. Trucks may be in the range of a 100,000 or more each year. So what can be done? Ultimately that lies with the utilities. The trucking industry doesn't make electricity. They're the experts in getting that much energy out there. We just want to be sure that it's clear how much these trucks are going to demand as well as the cars.

Todd Dills: Jeff's area number two, the vast increase in materials needed to produce an unprecedented number of physical batteries.

Jeff Short: A second challenge is the materials needed to make the actual electric truck, in particular to make the batteries. We look at the supply and demand of critical materials that included cobalt, lithium, graphite, nickel, found that a staggering amount of material is needed just for the US fleet. That's the trucking fleet and for cars as well, and there's global demand to contend with as well as that. Trucking needs tons of battery materials, millions of tons of battery materials like lithium, like cobalt. These materials need to be explored for, they need to be mined, they need to be processed, manufactured into a working lithium-ion battery. All of that takes time. There is pollution associated, especially with the mining side and final processing of the mine materials. These are tasks that take place all over the world. China, for instance, produces three quarters of the world's finished lithium-ion batteries.

China's sources those raw materials, however, from very specific places in Africa, Australia, South America, ultimately due to the lack of diversity in sources, supplies of batteries are vulnerable. Price fluctuations are definitely a concern as a result of that. It's important to understand that battery electric trucks are two or three times the cost of a traditional truck and the majority of that cost is for the battery and trucking's not the only one who's going to be demanding these batteries. Cars in the US will place a huge demand on these materials as well. And then there's global demand as I mentioned earlier. Any disruption in the supply chain can in increase prices. We found that a given truck will need more than 300 pounds of lithium. What happens if the price per pound doubles or triples, it did this year? What happens if that continues? The battery costs will rise and that's ultimately more capital that trucking companies going to need a plunge into equipment costs.

Todd Dills: In terms of the big need for materials that go into making batteries that are capable of holding and then being tapped for the kind of power that is needed to move a truck and for truck owners, that challenge manifests itself most directly in the projected cost of this stuff because it's very expensive at present, of course. There's a huge premium over traditional equipment. I've seen lots of different estimates, but we're talking right now at least twice the cost of a diesel truck in most cases. But there isn't an expectation of declining costs, I think for new technologies of the future, or is that something that the report addressed at all?

Matt Cole: It touched on it briefly. Basically they said after some capital investments into mining operations themselves, result in some optimization of mining. Just general economic theory suggest that economies of scale, would it end up reducing battery costs at some point, but at the same time, that's probably not going to happen until raw material supplies are meeting future demand and that's not going to happen until there's more BEVs on the road. So the short answer is yeah, prices will come to go down, but probably not soon for it to make an impact on most owner operators out there. I know part of the study talked about sourcing those materials and how it's not really tapped into in the United States so much. I think you mentioned there's some co, was it cobalt mines that are in Minnesota?

Jeff Short: Nickel mines in Minnesota, maybe Cobalt. There are some options in the United States for obtaining some of these materials domestically. The ultimate question is how much do we have? How much are we going to be able to mine ultimately and beyond that, are there going to be barriers? It may take, because of the regulations in the United States, it may take a little longer. There may be some pushback perhaps from environmental groups on large scale mining operations because there is a lot of pollution and it does do damage to the earth, especially places where they're going to go in and it hasn't been mined yet and certainly it's going to change the environment where the mining operation is placed.

Todd Dills: You brought this up when you were talking to him. I think the catch 22 that the environmental boosters of vehicle electrification find themselves in, given that so much of this battery electric anyway requires this huge reintroduction and or new mining operations in the United States itself, it would seem that would be the simplest way to get at a lot of these materials if we're going to building these things in the US and not relying entirely on foreign sources for these things, cobalt, nickel, lithium and everything, and to get it added in such large quantities. Does ATRI explicitly or even implicitly I guess, recommend anything to overcome the barriers that exist today to mining these materials? I know there's a reason that these operations don't pop up here. It's not exactly easy to do. There's a lot of challenge to them in local communities, those kinds of things.

Matt Cole: So it's more expensive to do those operations here in the US and obviously there's the challenges from the environmental aspect as well. ATRI really didn't have any recommendations for how to get around those. Basically they came to the conclusion that as more mining is required, there might be advances in mining production, but really battery technology itself is where the biggest gains are going to have to be made. They said batteries need to become lighter and more energy dense and maybe even be produced with different materials. They didn't say that there is research ongoing into those areas, but as of right now, their batteries are produced with certain materials. And they did say there's one active lithium mine that's in Nevada, but it only accounts for about 1% of the global finished product.

Minnesota has a bunch of potential mines, particularly for nickel and cobalt, but to start a whole new mining operation, that would be that scale, probably not going to happen.

Todd Dills: Finally, where the rubber meets the road, challenge area number three, the operational realities of long haul trucking.

Jeff Short: A third challenge lies with long haul truck charging. As you know, there's already a huge problem in the US with the truck parking shortage. It is perennially identified by drivers as a top concern for our annual top industry issues survey. So finding a truck parking in space is often difficult. Finding a truck parking space with a chargers going to be an entirely different ballgame.

Matt Cole: How do the hours of service and the truck parking issues specifically relate to the charging issues?

Jeff Short: They're completely intertwined. When you find yourself beyond the wheel of an electric truck, you realize it's now essential to find a truck parking space that has access to charging. There's no longer the option of parking on an off ramp or an unauthorized location if a truck parking location is at capacity. So once the driver finds the space to take his or her hours of service and charge and gain hours of service, they have to stay there. The driver is still going to have to get consecutive rest time. So it may take, let's say it takes three, four hours of charging, they're still going to have to stay there for the rest period. So they're not going to be moving the truck so that someone else can access it.

This ultimately exacerbates the truck parking crises. There's no way around it. Based on the research, it's clear that each of the 313,000 truck parking locations in the US will need a charger. The problem is, there's currently not enough parking and putting chargers at all of those locations won't even be enough charging. Ultimately, we will need more parking and more parking that has electricity access, more than the 313. And not to mention the fact that you cannot have a commercial enterprise charging, for instance, at a public rest area. We mentioned that in the report and go into those details. Currently, you're not allowed to do that. So that's at least 40,000 truck parking spaces that have a regulatory barrier to getting a charter at them.

Matt Cole: So I know in one part of the report you looked at a rural rest area in West Texas and looking at the truck traffic coming in and out, how long trucks were at those spaces at any given time. Can you talk about what you found there, especially with it being a rural area and not a more high traffic area like just Bergs, staying in Texas, for example, around Houston, which is obviously one of the busier cities in the country.

Jeff Short: So certainly at a rural location like that, truck parking, truck charging at those locations, necessitate new production of electricity and the electricity will have to move across power lines, trans transmission lines, distribution lines to places where large quantities of electricity have never gone before, like the case study we looked at. So in the report we look at a rural truck stop and based on current parking data, that relatively small truck parking spot, it has about 67 spaces, roughly 30 on each side of this interstate highway. That location would need more than the electricity equivalent of more than 5,000 US households each day, just to power what we found to be 126 trucks each day. That's a lot of power. They're going to have to bring out to that location just to charge 126 trucks, 5,000 households worth of power. Bringing that amount of electricity to a remote parking location is certainly an expensive proposition considering none the infrastructure's there.

Matt Cole: And obviously with long haul trucking and not everybody's stopping in a major metro area every night.

Jeff Short: That is correct.

Matt Cole: Well, expanding that out to the entirety of the US based on your research, how much charging infrastructure, how much electricity capacity does the US need to move the trucking fleet to electric, and based on what you found, is that even feasible?

Jeff Short: Certainly anything is feasible. If the dollars are there, this certainly could be feasible, but the infrastructure needs are enormous. Again, 40% more electricity will be consumed. Feasibility ultimately comes down to funding, like I said, and technology. Technological advances may be possible. It could decrease the battery material needs, increase efficiency of the vehicle, decrease the weight of the battery. These advances would be very critical, but there's no guarantee that they will happen. Folks are working on them. We all want a better battery for cars and trucks, but it's something that takes time and remains to be seen if it's possible.

But technology would alleviate some of the pressures associated with these issues. But ultimately, my final message here is the industry is not in the driver's seat on many of these challenges, though. There are discussions of phasing out diesel trucks requiring the purchase of zero emission trucks. The trucking industry does not produce electricity. We don't produce trucks, we don't produce chargers. We're the end user of these products, and ultimately utilities, industry suppliers, OEMs and truck stop operators are going to be the ones who need to provide feasible truck electrification options, a system that works for the industry. So it's a big effort and involves a lot of stakeholders and not just truck.

Todd Dills: This report was specifically engineered to look at the requirements of battery electric vehicle technology, and the talk ended on a point that short made about truckers being a sense that the mercy of these potential technology advances here, which might reduce material needs and costs and utilities, truck stop operators, public parking authorities, at the mercy of them making any big advances in electrification. Trucking going fully electric is going to depend on all these other things. It feels as if you come out at the end of this thing and it's like, "Well, what are we going to do about this? We can’t."

But at the same time, I know what a lot of owner-operators have been really interested in when it comes to electric drive and other alternative fuel vehicles is the possibility of onboard power generation like what you get with a diesel, a tank of diesel now, but with something that is entirely different, whether that's hydrogen or something else. And we've seen some really interesting developments this past year. Did the report at all address kind of possibilities in those areas? If you can do that, if you could do the onboard power generation would seem to be, that would yield like more of a status quo with regard to, for instance, the parking issue.

Matt Cole: The closest thing this report got to onboard charging was the ATRI went into several different strategies for potentially resolving charging issues. And the closest one to onboard was a embedded roadway charging where trucks would have a receiver on the undercarriage and then you'd have to redo pretty much every highway mile out there with that ability to charge, have charging in the roadways. The first report ATRI did last year though, did talk about hydrogen fuel cell trucks that harness solar or wind, I believe it was yet to power the trucks and they found that that would be the cleanest fuel option in the future. Obviously, we're not there yet technology-wise, but this latest report didn't really get into onboard charging too much.

Todd Dills: Anything else in the report overall that you saw that you think bears mentioning for the owner-operators that are in our audience?

Matt Cole: The biggest thing to me was just the sheer amount of electricity that would be required to transition the US fleet to electric. Some states would have to produce as much as 63% more power than they do today. And that's like Jeff said in the interview, anything is feasible if there's enough money behind it, but you have to find that money somewhere. There's still a long way to go in terms of battery technology and other areas before we see a full transition. And personally, I don't know that it's something that we'll ever see for battery electric. I think diesel will eventually go the way of the dinosaur, so to speak, but I don't think battery electric is going to be the answer personally.

Todd Dills: And that's a wrap. A big thanks to Cole and ATRI's Jeff Short for their time, to you for hanging through to the end. Find a link to the full report and show notes for this podcast in the post that houses it Navigate to the January 13th, 2023 edition.

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