Approximately 50 battery electric semis are currently operating on U.S. roads. None of them were built by Tesla.
Tesla has long been the de facto name for vehicle electrification, and it deserves credit for sparking the market on which many have pinned their hopes and dreams for a livable planet. But when it comes to reducing emissions in commercial transportation Tesla has hijacked the public’s limited attention. Since dazzling audiences in 2017 with its Semi EV plan, the company has been predictably tight-lipped. A few prototypes have been spotted in the wild but today even Tesla’s biggest-name customers remain in the dark about their years-overdue orders.
Mainstream print media hasn’t done much to cut through Tesla’s static signal, either. Since August 2021, the New York Times, Washington Post, and LA Times ran approximately three, two and less than one “electric truck” articles per month, respectively. Their subjects were primarily Rivian, Ford, Tesla, and Nikola—four companies with no history producing trucks (Ford excepted in the pickup segment) but strong sex appeal for anyone who enjoys stock market drama. Fleet customer the United States Postal Service also enjoyed some air time thanks to its prominent lawsuits. And yet in the last 18 months, U.S. fleets have ordered over 1,000 electric semis, mostly from manufacturers whose products are past prototype.
Tesla’s power lies in its unique ability to occupy the public mind just as much when it is making a flashy reveal as when it is laying low. Absent competing news, Tesla has become the barometer for truck electrification: “If Tesla can’t do it, who can?”
From local mail delivery to long-haul trucking, commercial transportation has begun reducing its roughly 27% share of U.S. emissions by swapping diesel engines for battery packs. This transformation of the trucking ecosystem has been discussed for years and the earliest deadlines are upon us, with California requiring most fleet sectors to begin operating zero emission vehicles as soon as 2023. Fleet readiness remains a big question but the trucks themselves not only exist, they are already on the road.
The earliest electric semis were built by enthusiastic start-ups with grant funding and limited customer experience. Today, trusted industry leaders including Freightliner, Kenworth, Navistar, Peterbilt and Volvo are selling models that have been tested in real-world operations over several years. Customers are trending towards volume orders, and many small initial orders include terms for larger volumes in a second purchase.
The COVID-induced supply chain crisis battered the trucking industry and geopolitical events continue to inflict new bruises. Some market factors, like high diesel prices, have infused the movement to wean trucks off of fossil fuels with new urgency. Others, like inflation and battery production, have highlighted some very inconvenient truths about the known options.
Amidst this turmoil, truck manufacturers and their partners have plowed ahead to develop, test, build and deliver 33,000-lb vehicles that can work a 150-mile day without a drop of diesel. And they continue to reach beyond their personal bests. Battery sizes have grown and a growing roster of customer deployments is actively generating intel for the next update. Most manufacturers expect to build and sell EVs at a steady pace by mid-decade.
The average citizen doesn’t think about commercial trucking on a regular basis, and I am not arguing that she should. But the economic pendulum of the last several years has revealed that the average citizen wants the mechanics serving her daily life to become more climate-friendly.
As the federal government prepares to inject billions of dollars into transportation, it’s important to know that electric trucking is not still a science question or a Tesla gamble. Proven products exist and are already driving down the emissions associated with your Ikea order, Walmart stop, or grocery run. Tesla may catch up. But if and when it does is no longer the point.