Electric trucks don't stand a chance, even in drayage, without more power infrastructure

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Updated Nov 15, 2023


This week's edition of the Overdrive Radio podcast examines the purpose of companies like Forum Mobility, a vehicle-charging-services and equipment leasing company. Company Regional Director Ron Hunt leads the podcast with a dose of e-truck skepticism, sounding in some ways like owner-operators who keep battery electric trucks at arm's length while tech and charging-infrastructure develop.

"Making trucks is great," he said of electric rigs. "But until you have infrastructure, they're not going to sell or be bought, or be usable." 

Hunt’s a veteran of the trucking world who got involved with electric-truck start-up Xos Trucks some time back. Yet what he learned led him to the charging-infrastructure side, in part given those absolutely huge barriers to any widespread adoption of electric Class 8s.

Howes logoOverdrive Radio's sponsor is Howes, longtime provider of fuel treatments like its Howes Diesel Treat anti-gel to get your ready for winter, likewise its all-weather Diesel Defender, among other products.On October 25 we published the anchor story in a series around electric-drive-power realities, in which Alex Lockie unveiled and contextualized readers’ views on the current state of electrification as it relates the specific needs of their mostly OTR businesses. Putting it quite succinctly, here’s how one owner-operator commenter summed up current views on battery-electric Class 8 for OTR hauling: "It's not going to work, the power grid can't handle it, and the trucks don't go far enough on a charge."

Hunt and his colleagues at the Forum Mobility company aim to help on the grid front, and well realize any “electric revolution” will be a long time coming to trucking, even port drayage where they're specializing.

Overdrive Radio logoSubscribe to the podcast on your listening platform of choice for early access to the weekly Overdrive Radio series -- it drops typically every Friday to the feed and follows here at OverdriveOnline.com and in Overdrive's Youtube and Facebook feeds the following week. You can subscribe for first access via Apple and Google podcasts, Spotify, TuneIn, most anywhere you listen.Yet use of electric trucks is certainly growing fast, even if electric Class 8 tractors running in California still only number in the low three digits, Ron Hunt emphasized. Port drayage in the state is where those units are most prominent, for good reason. The California Air Resources Board has done everything it can to really make the market there, with an end-of-year deadline for dray haulers to register their diesels within CARB’s system. And as of the first of the year, if lawsuits don’t derail this particular deadline (a little more on that in the podcast, and via this link), any truck newly registered to work California ports must be a “zero emissions vehicle.” 

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[Related: How politics and PR cloud 'zero emissions' reality]

Forum Mobility is aiming nonetheless to be a provider of subscription-based charging access to sites in both Southern and Northern California specifically built with drayage trucks in mind. They’re also combining electric-truck lease services with those charging subscriptions. They plan to build six facilities over the next couple years, with the first likely to come online next year.

In the podcast, find excerpts from a talk with Ron Hunt and two other Forum reps about how the business got its start and just where it’s planning to go to serve drayage haulers in California, and beyond

Also in the podcast, some insight on what proved to be part of Forum Mobility's proof-of-concept work with small fleet Hight Logistics, a story also told in Overdrive here. Hight's now running five electric trucks leased through the company in and around SoCal ports. 

Read next: With CARB ZEV deadline looming, port dray haulers turn to battery-electric trucks 

[Related: Tesla's Semi may blow past diesels uphill, but do owner-ops care?]

Transcript

Ron Hunt: Making trucks is great, but until you have infrastructure, they're not going to sell or be bought or be usable.

Todd Dills: The sage words of Mr. Ron Hunt you heard there at the top. Hunt's a veteran of the trucking world who got involved with electric truck startup Xos Trucks sometime back. He's now with another new venture in the charging infrastructure side, and the experience of the recent years' hype and real world results in some cases around electric Class 8 truck implementation has him sounding a bit like many an over the road owner operator when it comes to the absolutely huge barriers that exist any widespread adoption of electric Class 8s.

I'm Todd Dills, your host for this Overdrive Radio Edition, dropping to the podcast feed October 27th, 2023, and subsequently at the world-famous overdriveonline.com. But this week my colleague, Alex Lockey, unveiled and quite nicely contextualized Overdrive's readers views on the current state of electrification as it relates to the specific needs of most OTR businesses. Putting it quite succinctly, here's what one commenter on a recent survey of readers we conducted said about the current nature of all battery electric technology as it relates to bedrock operational feasibility.

"It's not going to work. The power grid can't handle it and the trucks don't go far enough on a charge." Now if that glided right past your listening brain, again with feeling, "It's not going to work. The power grid can't handle it and the trucks don't go far enough on a charge." Fair enough, and certainly true on all counts if you think about the load of an untold hundreds of thousands of diesel rigs newly suddenly demanding power from the grid all at once. But as Ron Hunt and his colleagues at the Forum Mobility company, and I'm sure many of you know, there's growing use of electric units, but the "electric revolution" will be a good long time incoming. When I talked with three of the company's reps in late summer early fall, Rob Kelly there had this to say, for instance, about the total population of electric Class 8s operating in California.

Rob Kelly: 125 or so, Class 8 electric tractors working right now out in the wild.

Todd Dills: It is certainly growing fast though, Ron Hunt emphasized, and it's important drayage where it's most prominent for good reason. The California Air Resources Board has done everything they can to really make the market there. The [inaudible 00:02:34] deadline for port drayage haulers to register their diesels with in-CARB system and as of the first of the year, if lawsuits don't derail this particular deadline and a little more on those lawsuits later, as the first of this year, any truck registered to work California ports must be a "zero emissions vehicle". We'll use that ZEV shorthand a bit here though no manufactured product in today's world is truly zero emissions, as we all know.

Forum Mobility, is aiming nonetheless to be a power provider with subscription-based charging access to sites in both Southern and Northern California, specifically built with drayage trucks in mind. I wrote about their first proof of concept and a deal they built with small fleet Hight Logistics recently. Hight owner Rudy Diaz leased five electric units working directly with forum on those purchases and with the electric power included in the lease payment, it's been challenging in some ways dealing with recalls on first and at best second generation equipment with the trucks likewise squaring the investment put into it all by the small fleet owner with a return. Diaz does feel like it's working for him generally, particularly as time goes on and diesel costs are avoided.

It's working for Forum two and they're hoping to bring that truck lease and power subscription model directly to truckers as they build a plan six facilities with more on the way. Today on the podcast ex-service from my talk with Rob Kelly, Ron Hunt, and one more forum rep about how the business got its start and just where it's planning to go. Serve drayage haulers in California and perhaps beyond.

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Todd Dills: That's right, you can find plenty more about Howe's anti gel diesel treat formula at H-O-W-E-S. That's howesproducts.com. Here's four mobility senior vice president Rob Kelly setting us up with the strong solar power industry roots of the new power services provider for dray haulers.

Rob Kelly: So my introduction is I worked at a company called Solar City, so I was already in renewable energy infrastructure with that company. We got bought by Tesla and after two years at Tesla and 10 years at Solar City, I decided that I wanted to take my understanding of energy and move it over into transportation and I found this startup called Amply Power and Amply was doing something very similar to what we're doing, building infrastructure for the conversion of ICE vehicles to EVs. We were kind of looking at all markets, so we had customers that were in school districts, transit agencies, ride hailing. We were kind of doing it all and did that for two and a half years when Matt and Topher-

Todd Dills: Rob Kelly's referencing their Forum Mobility co-founders, Topher Wood and Matt LeDucq, the latter is now the company CEO.

Rob Kelly: And Topher came calling on me through mutual friends just kind of wanting to understand the marketplace and the opportunity and electrification. They too had come from a long history of infrastructure development, mostly in renewables and solar, big utility scale solar and saw the same thing I had seen a few years prior was people are going to need help in this area. There's going to be a big infrastructure investment and that's what we're good at. We just need to change from renewable energy infrastructure to EV/SE charging infrastructure, so load instead of generation.

And so I kind of talked them through what I thought the opportunity was and they started building a business plan to move into this space and asked me to join them and I did and we decided together that a little more concentration on this drayage market with California coming out with the mandates that they are special focus on drayage, cleaning up the air around the ports. That was probably going to be a particularly interesting opportunity in electrification and in a marketplace where you could kind of build a relationship and a network of these depots that would all kind of help this overall fleet operate.

And here we are, but we didn't understand the fleet market really well. So we started joining trade associations and other things to become more familiar with our customer and luckily I met Ron along the way and Ron has had a long history in trucking and goods movement and he's really helped expand our understanding of the marketplace as well as meet real contacts through his Rolodex.

Ron Hunt: It's been just over a year since I joined the team and team. I come from a background here in Southern California, like Rob said, of over a few decades of various transportation, freight logistics related roles. So kind of touched most everything domestically over the road, intermodal, brokerage, warehouse and distribution, yard management, LTL truckload, pretty much dry, cold, whatever, whatever.

My first foray into this new, I was in the services side all those years and decades and then a couple of years ago I was able to start up with Xos trucks, a battery electric OEM here in LA and that was kind of my entry and introduction to the space we're in now. And obviously I saw the writing on the wall that making trucks is great, but until you have infrastructure, they're not going to sell or be bought or be usable. So fortunate enough to make the move over just over a year ago, like I said, and just feel like I'm going out and educating de-stressing, guiding and consulting.

I'm not really out there to sell anything. It just kind sells itself. They're under mandates. You're probably pretty well versed on advanced clean fleets. These drayage operators are all under mandates. They're like, "Oh, trucks, how much do they cost? How's long it takes to charge? What's a kilowatt hour? How much do they weigh?" Of course I'd like to redirect them to the bigger, let them know that I'll answer all those questions and I'm going to be happy to guide and educate them a little bit. But they've got a much bigger problem to battle and that is the charging side of things. So once I go through some checklists of things that they normally cannot check off as far as land ownership or long leases or space or money or energy, panel power resources permitting, environmental construction, two years plus, by the end I just say, "Hey, we're building these charging depots. You can subscribe and just come and park and charge here, fill out flat rate", and they're like, "Oh my gosh, done. Where do I sign?" It's like it sells itself at that point.

Todd Dills: Yeah, I don't think you guys have gotten these things fully developed and built yet, right?

Rob Kelly: We've got one site developed, it's behind our customer's gate Rudy's as establishment. So those chargers been running since December. He's operating the trucks, the BYD and the Volvo truck today. He has more coming. But really through that experience, we decided a third party network of chargers makes more sense than trying to find places where we can build infrastructure at people's sites themselves. So we have 2, 3, 4, we have six sites under development right now, all in permitting phases, site control, but going through permitting. So that's four in Southern California and two in northern California surrounding. So one inside the port of Oakland, one inside the port of Long Beach and then some facilities extending that network out.

Ron Hunt: Those six are ones where we already do have site control, so there's a dozen or more additional that are at earlier stages of development. So the idea, we've got a very focused target market of the drayage industry. Of course we're talking to other trucking companies and food distribution companies that are still showing an interest as well, but we are looking at port to inland corridor 50 miles or so in the port area. So we do offer the lease back of the truck as well. We don't push that as a requirement. There are some others in our space that you have to take a whole package. We're agnostic to the trucks. We'll guide and consult them through that process. If they want to end up leasing it through us as a package deal, we'll do that. If they end up wanting to buy or lease it through the dealer, we can just get them on a charging subscription. So of course it's all subscription only, no retail. They're able to lock in their spots and make sure they've got the charging that they need.

Todd Dills: Ron Hunt, former mobility's regional director around the California port trucking world noted the option that Rudy Diaz and Hight Logistics took to begin their journey to electric vehicles, as previously noted, leasing battery electric trucks through Forum Mobility directly. As I wrote when we profiled Hight's move in that arena so far at overdriveonline.com, he has declined to disclose his own lease cost per truck, but noted that electric power included an individual owner might get into a truck with the company at a rate between $5500-6500 monthly. That's a mammoth lease payment, but also keep in mind you're paying for power there to not spending a dime on diesel. Leasing a truck through Forum this way for Diaz took away the necessity of negotiating California's incentive programs to make the extremely expensive BYD Volvo electric trucks. He's employing at least somewhat more affordable forms. Rob Kelly noted Diaz's estimate is in the ballpark though it's difficult to put a hard number on lease costs given the range of grant programs for electric trucks that might apply to a small fleet in California.

Rob Kelly: Different incentive levels. There's one called Innovative Small E Fleet. You get plus ups if you're in certain communities. So his general sense of that number is right because it depends. The answer is it depends.

Ron Hunt: It depends on the truck too. Truck costs very a little bit by about a hundred grand or so. So it can get up higher than that, but that would be the low to mid-range probably. So yeah, there are a lot of variables to that. But yeah, the idea is that the way we're setting them up is where the drivers can report to work here. We've got parking for their personal vehicles, they unplug the truck and they head out and they come back. Most of it's going to be dwell charging where they're just tractor only and they're going to charge for three to five hours minimum. We'll have some higher powered chargers with some pull through areas where they can come in with a container or trailer on their back and do a quick top off to get home or finish their routing. Maybe they'll be there for 20 minutes up to an hour, hour and a half and they can move on out of there.

So there's a couple other quick tidbits about our operational. We're offering things like a night dwell, a day dwell, a dedicated dispenser, a dedicated whole charger. So we try to semi customize the plans with some productization so that we can be flexible and we work with the customer to understand how that's going to work in the new world because it's a new world for them and they have to start to understand how they're going to become. I tell them, "Hey, you guys are going to become the experts and figure out how you want to run your business. I'm just going to try to guide you a little bit and bring some of these new insights and considerations to the table and allow them to start to over the coming months and years, become experts at how to run it."

But we just try to help them with utilization to make sure their cost per truck is as low as possible with their subscription decisions as well as a little bit of future proofing is in there. A lot of the customers we talk about not just getting in bare minimum for the first year, it's a multi-year commitment and obviously this is a permanent commitment as far as going zero emissions in the industry. So start getting them thinking of year two, year three, and they start to kind of future-proof a little bit, start padding up. So there's some more tidbits for you to absorb.

Todd Dills: Of course. I do not come across many owners of electric trucks today that actually have been running them. Are you finding particular headaches to work through with Rudy from a maintenance perspective? I think he has had to kind of trade in, bring some back and trade out some trucks because there were some problems and such. Any lessons being learned I guess on the equipment side from having his operation up and running, I guess?

Rob Kelly: Yeah, I mean there's been a lot to learn. Obviously this is some first generation equipment, so we've had our issues. I think all the more reason to put a third party whose concentration is keeping this equipment working in place, it makes a lot of sense. They've got enough to do to run their carrier business. We're finding that interoperability is the new word that we're chasing a lot, right? You introduce a new truck, it gets a new update in its software. It doesn't really communicate to the charger the exact same way. The communication between those is called OCPP. So we're technically kind of always messing around with that stuff and then just trying to expose all the data that will allow Rudy to make good decisions moving forward in terms of what is the real efficiency of the vehicle, what is its true distance depending on how big the load is.

There's a lot of learning that's going on at this early stage and I think that the people who dive into this first are going to have a significant advantage over everybody else with their understanding of the equipment. But also lucky enough to get press like Rudy, some inbound calls from big shippers that want exposure to zero emissions moves as they try to tackle their own ESG goals. So I think the early mover has a huge advantage learning access to the biggest subsidies just like solar, those will go down over time as the prices start to compete with ICE engines and then being recognized out there as a carrier that can offer zero emissions moves is a huge advantage.

Todd Dills: ESG, Rob Kelly said there that stands for environmental, social and governance Initiatives increasingly part of big corporate efforts all around. That extends to big shippers and warehousers too, what he's getting out there. Small fleet Hight Logistics owner Rudy Diaz have certainly benefited from the implementation of battery electric trucks in their Southern California port drayage operation. His press about the move has made the rounds even hitting Wired Magazine, not to mention more local outlet outlets. In short, long-term there well could be a revenue and general business building benefit of going electric. And when I talked with Diaz in reporting his fleet story, he like most in trucking, tended to calculate return on investment in more hard cost terms. Even so with the savings on diesel, he feels like he'll be in the black on his least cost in relatively short order. That said, battery electric trucking and OTR operations is simply not ready for prime time.

As noted previously in the story published October 25 at overdriveonline.com, in part detailing results of our survey of the readership about interest in electric powertrains and results at mostly yes drayage fleets out west. The ACT research organization did a total cost of ownership analysis of battery electric vehicles earlier this year and found only one application where the juice was really worth the squeeze today. One application other than local refuse, that is. What was the application? You guessed it, short haul, port drayage. Yet even with California's mandates for drayage fleets coming into play at years in still early days for electric trucks, Forum Mobility, Rob Kelly and Ron Hunt well know that though the numbers are getting bigger by the day as Ron looks and what follows.

Rob Kelly: 25 or so class eight electric tractors working right now out in the wild.

Ron Hunt: Just in California. But yeah. That number was like 25 last summer and 40 last fall. So it's exponentially growing for sure.

Todd Dills: What kind of a timeline do you guys have on some of your sites? Getting your full network of six they're getting fully done?

Rob Kelly: Yeah, good question. It's a full race. Every single one of ours has a different authority having jurisdiction over permitting process. So we'll see who's the easiest to work with. Our first sites will start opening probably late summer next year, and we hope to have all six of those first ones open by Q4 of next year. But we'll always be developing, we'll always have a handful of sites under development once we get a pretty good retention on some customers for our first six, we'll start developing the next sites right on the heels of that. So we'll always be turning on new sites if everything goes to plan.

Todd Dills: Have you been working with owners other than Rudy on just kind of laying the groundwork for actually them coming on board through you guys?

Rob Kelly: Yeah, yeah. We've got a bunch of different discussions with carriers looking to order their first electric trucks. We've got some already on order that will be using our sites and then we're talking to a couple dozen other ones, informing them about where our sites are, when those will be open, how do we coordinate the right timing for them to have a truck at that time and going through kind of their pricing options on our different products of do they want a dedicated couple chargers? Do they just want to use a charger overnight and pick up the truck in the morning? So yeah, a few dozen is probably where we're at. And then we'll have Adam, what do you think? We'll have 400 dispensers available by the end of next year. Is that a good round number?

Adam Browning: I counted 600.

Rob Kelly: Awesome. Got some work to do.

Adam Browning: Right. That was like I knocked on those two other sites. So I was considering our first tranche to be the four Northern California four Southern with senior dispensers on in the next 12 to 24 months.

Todd Dills: That's Adam Browning, executive policy vice president with Forum Mobility. The new voice there Browning detailed some of the funding sitting in wait to pour concrete at sites once all of the permitting was fully in place, including a $400 million worth of a joint venture with CBRE investment management. As with the prospects of buying one of the new electric vehicles not uncommon to hear real prices absent any grant funding upward of $400,000 in many cases. Cost of building infrastructure of this kind is absolutely massive. Companies certainly got its work cut out for it. There's more from Adam Browning.

Adam Browning: There's a couple other companies in our space and they've all got their strengths and our strength, a lot of us come over from the solar industry where our superpower is identifying spots on the grid where you can interconnect and bring massive amounts of power. And then actually building got really strong track record of getting stuff built, bringing on and developing a lot more of the trucking experience. But the backstory is we know how to build stuff and electrical equipment on the grid, so that's one of the differentiating assets that we bring.

Todd Dills: Another difference.

Adam Browning: We're focused a hundred percent on drayage and our goal is to build an ecosystem that works for your dray operator so that they've got a place to charge beginning, middle, and end and can make it work for that sector vertically. Other companies have other approaches to diversify the different types of vehicles that bring in, and maybe it'll work for them, maybe it won't, but our focus again is we're there to be there to make the full cycle, the full ecosystem work for Drayage. I think part of what we're trying to do here is to incubate the business models and the technologies that then grow west to east, figuratively and literally, and I've talked to the drivers of those Tesla semis and they say they're a legit 400-500 mile truck.

Todd Dills: That's somewhat long, right?

Adam Browning: You can get started on that. Yeah.

Todd Dills: There has been some real world range performance data to emerge about the Tesla model, but as Alex Locke's reported in recent times, Mr. Musk's claim of a 500 mile range at 81,000 pounds certainly hasn't yet been entirely vindicated. Figures on the unloaded weight of the Tesla Semi seemed to have been closely guarded throughout its entire existence. 500 miles though, even if achievable, just doesn't cut it truly over the road without huge operational adjustments for many truckers.

Adam Browning: So we've seen this movie before. When I got started in solar, solar was $10 a watt and just a rounding error in the overall scheme of things. And through focused, policy driven market development like that, technology just crushed it. And now latest I saw selling a gigawatts worth of solar a day globally. It's the cheapest source of new power out there. So change is possible. Technology driven change really is. We view this as just the beginning, the catalyst. It's going to grow quite a bit.

Ron Hunt: I'd also add on the marketplace, all those big over the road carriers have, most of them have drayage operations as well. Yeah, a lot of them have terminals in the greater LA market. And so there's a lot of those conversations going on with that marketplace with us. They do have terminals near the ports or in the South Bay or in the Inland Empire somewhere up north in the valley there. So there's a lot of overlap there.

And then speaking of the competition and some of the others out there doing things, we're doing, again, I just want to reiterate something that I learned at Xos and I see in the marketplace is I just really love our hyper focus on what we're doing to execute well because the money can run out really fast. If you try to do too much Xos, Nicola and some of the others in our space, I worry you're going to follow that same pattern where they're trying to touch different markets and industries and segments and different classes of vehicles and even maybe some different energy technologies and they're trying to kind of get their foot into every aspect of it.

I really like how we're running lean and mean. We know what our market is and we know it's got plenty of room to grow. So it's a big deal.

Ron Hunt: Yeah, there's 33,000 trucks operating in Drayage just in California alone. And all those trucks by 2036 will have to be zero emissions.

Todd Dills: Maybe, that is. The California Trucking Association's recent lawsuit filed in federal district court against the advanced clean fleets rule. The state could well change the parameters of what CARBs doing there, but I might guess it's fairly safe to assume that might not impact the end of year deadline for drayage trucks to be registered with CARB and after the deadline be ZEVs in some form if newly registered. But we'll see on that front as news comes. Here's Ron Hunt finally on what he's advised fleets he's worked with out West, thinking about the reality of that deadline, which sparked something of a diesel, pre-buy of sorts among many out there.

Ron Hunt: I was going to say when I talked to my customers about that, we can't offer them a zero emissions truck and a charging solution January 1st, 2024, as Rob stated, it's going to be second half later in the year before we even get started on that stuff. And the trucks right now, a lot of them are taking up to 12 months for pre-order.

But I say, Hey, I don't speak for CARB. I can't guarantee anything. But you have two choices. You can go to CARB earlier in the year if you need an exception or you're in a pinch and have no PO with anybody and no progress and nothing. And you've probably got a lot better chance of getting a little... If they're going to offer any exceptions or help, they'll do it to those probably that have started something in '23 at least and have some kind of POs. They might let them bring in some used diesels for a year until their ZEVs deliver. Something like that is feasible.

It's all they can do at this point. We can't build or deliver. The OEMs can't all deliver any sooner. And to Rob's point earlier, I don't know if Adam said it, they're going to sell out too and our prices will go up and they keep saying trucks are going to get cheaper. Well Volvos a year or two ago, we're in the threes, now they're in the fours. Everything's going up, up, up. And our pricing will almost assuredly go up. So the ones that are jumping on board are starting to realize it's time to get their feet wet. And to Rob's other point, it allows them to start to scale.

I said, it's not like an ERP. Don't worry about it. You're not flipping a switch and changing your whole company in one day. You're going to be able to start small. The total cost of ownership probably won't be too bad. You'll probably be okay. We work through some numbers and forecasting, but even if you take a little hit on a couple small percentage of your trucks, it's what you got to do. But you'll be positioning yourself to be ahead of the pack and to scale faster and to be more experienced, more efficient in how you operate them moving forward. You have that edge.

Todd Dills: Sure. Anyway, most owner operators I know are in wait and see mode around this stuff, but that edge Hunt talks about is at least on the minds of some small fleet owners like Diaz and drayage out West. Keep tuned for more reporting on electric Drive trains in the porthole world out west as noted at the top. And for now, just thanks to Rob Kelly, Ron Hunt and Adam Browning for the time spent with me to talk through the designs at Forum Mobility. A lot of work yet to be done to get things off the ground, but an interesting look at yet another place where California's equipment regulation meets the real world of business and infrastructure investment.

Finally, I’ll post a link to our ongoing series around where electric drive and other alternative fuel techs stand for owner-operator reality today in the show notes, wherever you're listening, Overdrive Radio is on Spotify, SoundCloud, Apple and Google Podcasts. Tune in on almost any platform. Subscribe so you don't miss an episode and if you're enjoying these, leave us a rating or review there. Big thanks for it.