Electrifying Drayage Operations

In the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, more than six thousand class 8 trucks are used to move hundreds of containers from one place to another daily. State initiatives to improve the air quality include replacing all these trucks by 2035 with vehicles that do not emit any harmful emissions from their engines.

This proposal has created a lot of uncertainty among transport companies since the only options available today are electric trucks. To remove the doubts that these trucks are capable of doing the job without difficulty, the Harbor Trucking Association (HTA) held an event where members could see and drive the currently available options. On Alameda Street, the heart of the ports and surrounded by thousands of containers, units from Hyundai, Nikola, BYD, Peterbilt, Hyzon, and Kenworth were presented so that business people could draw their conclusions. Tesla was not here, nor was Volvo or Freightliner with their EV models. Electric trucks’ power-train systems,  having fewer parts,  are lighter, without vibrations, and with the ability to have instant power. These advantages are felt immediately when the truck starts rolling. I see that any one of them can do the work required to serve the ports of the United States. The benefit is that comfort for the driver is much better when compared to trucks with Diesel engines. And you would not be using any fossil fuels. 

Which is better is very difficult to establish. It caught my attention that none of the companies could confirm the price, real-world performance, or time required to recharge the batteries. I got a lot of “approximations” and “variables,” but not enough to feel comfortable. With my experience in the sector, I can confirm that the uncertainty on the part of the transportation companies is justified. After talking with engineers from these enterprises, I can conclude that trucks that use batteries to save energy (which then power the electric motor) have a range between 200 and 250 miles. Those that use hydrogen cells have a range between 300 and 400 miles. These trucks weigh between 25,000 and 29,000 pounds (comparable Diesel-powered versions are in the 17,000-18,000 pound range). Battery recharging with 120-180 KW direct current (DC) chargers requires between 2.5 and 3 hours of uninterrupted connection to get the batteries back to a 75% charge. While all of this is reasonable in terms of performance, the price could be anywhere from $400 to $500,000. That is more than double what a truck costs today. Nobody confirmed these figures with me, but that is what was said by everyone, and the subsidies would be the only way to cover a portion of the investment costs for early adopters.

With all those who were generous enough to establish a conversation anonymously, I confirmed that infrastructure is the biggest obstacle. Establishing a network of truck chargers is more complicated for commercial vehicles since there are many regulations at the city, county, and state levels, in addition to requiring more space due to their large size. Many of the proposals assume that the cost of electricity will remain low. But the reality is that the companies that generate electricity will have to invest billions of dollars to create more electricity and bring it to the right places, which would increase its cost.

We are at the very early stages of this transformation. There is hope that developing newer technologies and building the needed infrastructure will happen by 2035. The “clean” truck rule of 2010 was brutal for many companies but did not stop the container trade. And these trucks are all being replaced in January 2023. A decade in technology is a long time. Just look at the computer in your hand that can even make video phone calls. Let’s remember the Red Flag act 1865, which required a person to walk sixty yards ahead of an automobile that, by law, it could not exceed 2 mph. That rule did not stop the car industry because people then could go further in search of opportunity. International trade will only grow in the future, and as with any transportation revolution, the hurdles will be less and less when you see the long-term benefits. Like in any industry there are always brave early adopters to radical changes that find a justification in their business model. The fact is that EV trucks are here now. The first step to “clean” transport has already been taken.

Ricardo Rodriguez Long