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Can EVs and new safety tech transform trucking?

Going electric may change the trucking safety landscape, but nothing is likely to happen quickly. By Barrett Young

In early 2023, the Environmental Protection Agency approved a plan to boost the number of zero-emissions heavy-duty trucks on California’s roads. The move was the next step in a plan to clean up some of the state’s worst polluting cars, coming on the heels of comprehensive statewide regulations that look to phase out all gas-powered cars in just over a decade. “Time to stop playing small ball,” said California Governor Gavin Newsom in a tweet. “Half of all heavy duty trucks sold in CA will be electric by 2035.”

Promising a clean, electric vehicle-powered trucking future for California is one thing; making it a safety-focused reality across the entire country presents an entirely new set of challenges and limitations.

Balancing the benefits of EV fleet technology

Besides the obvious positive environmental impacts, such as reduced emissions and noise pollution, one key benefit of electric vehicles (EVs) in the trucking industry is the potential for increased safety, particularly if EV trucks eventually come standard with fleet safety technology. This can include features such as collision avoidance systems, lane departure warnings and advanced driver drowsiness detection, which can help prevent accidents and improve driver safety.

Increasingly, electric cars and trucks are leaning into advanced software capabilities, rendering them big computers on wheels. From a safety perspective, some advocate that advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) should not only be included on electric trucking rigs like their diesel-powered counterparts to help drivers avoid collisions, but also included within the systems themselves from the factory floor onward.

Increasingly, electric cars and trucks are leaning into advanced software capabilities, rendering them big computers on wheels

The ability for EVs to include built-in AI fleet dash cams is key as they can help reduce collisions caused by distracted driving. This technology can analyse traffic patterns to identify risky distances to correct unsafe actions, reducing the likelihood of accidents. This means that fleet owners can take advantage of EV technology to inherently ensure the safety of their drivers and other road users, while also potentially lowering insurance premiums and minimising vehicle downtime.

EV truck sales will arguably be critical to reach zero emissions and new safety standards. However, as with any new technology, there will naturally be headwinds.

The infrastructure speed bump

One of the most significant concerns for EV trucks is the potential for range anxiety, which occurs when drivers are uncertain about the remaining distance they can travel before batteries need to be recharged. This can cause drivers to make risky decisions, such as ignoring safety protocols to conserve power, which can result in accidents. To address range anxiety, companies will need to invest in adequate infrastructure, such as charging stations along highways, to ensure that drivers can recharge their trucks conveniently and safely. This presents a chicken-or-egg situation for trucks similar to what the market saw with passenger vehicles.

But for heavy-duty trucks, the fleet business is already razor thin. Many will be hesitant to tap into profits so they can buy all new trucks and invest in cross-country infrastructure that can adequately charge a fleet that is constantly on the go.

What’s worse, EV charging takes considerably longer than filling up a quick tank of gas. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration will need to potentially recalculate how the hours of service rules are mandated so that charging stops and required rest breaks align. Otherwise, it could take twice as long for trucks to travel across the country, causing a domino effect that could cripple the country’s supply chain.

The role of grid reliability

Building an adequate nationwide network of chargers is only half the battle. While companies like Volvo are partnering with Pilot’s truckstop network to lay the groundwork to help commercial trucks seamlessly transition to EVs, the project is still in the early stages and real-world versions of the proposed charging networks do not currently have a due date.

Truck charging
The Volvo Group and Pilot Company are teaming up to build a network of public charging across the US

However, there are real concerns that the current electricity grid simply can’t handle the load. Grid reliability is another significant challenge that needs to be addressed. Unlike passenger vehicles, which can be charged at home or at work, commercial trucks require high-power fast-charging capabilities, which draw a significant amount of electricity from the grid—often at times that coincide with peak electricity demand. Charging multiple EV trucks at the same time can put a strain on the entire grid, potentially causing blackouts and other power-related safety issues to persist.

Some states already have grid reliability issues without the massive amount of power needed for the EV revolution. Just look at what happened in Texas with the state’s power crisis in 2021, which saw an inability of the energy supply chain to withstand extremely cold temperatures. Similarly, extreme heat in 2022tested California’s energy supply and pushed the power grid to its limit.

The act of charging itself might not even be feasible given the current limitations of EV technology. A study from utility company National Grid found that even if highway truck stops were retrofitted for EVs in the next 20 years they would still require the same amount of power as an outdoor sports stadium to adequately charge fleets. A parking lot full of electric semi-trucks, all towing tons of cargo, could even require the number of kilowatts used to power a small town.

Commercial trucks require high-power fast-charging capabilities, which draw a significant amount of electricity from the grid

The ever-changing political landscape

Another reality of the EV trucking situation is that the support and incentives for EVs vary widely between different regions from a political perspective. It’s no fluke that California, which provides generous incentives for EV adoption like tax credits, rebates and subsidies for the purchase and installation of charging infrastructure, is leading the way. There will also always be oil company lobbyists pushing hard against EV adoption and  broader political decisions can impact the availability and cost of key components for EVs. For example, trade policies and tariffs can increase the cost of importing batteries and other components, which can make EVs less cost-competitive compared to traditional diesel trucks.

Furthermore, political uncertainty and changes in leadership can create instability and unpredictability for those in the trucking industry. This can make it difficult for businesses to make long-term investments in EV technology, as they may be unsure of future government support and incentives.

Next steps

The impact of EVs on the trucking industry could be significant. If EV semi-trucks and tractor-trailers eventually come standard with fleet safety technology, this could further improve safety and prevent accidents.

However, the transition to EVs also presents challenges that need to be addressed, such as the need for adequate charging infrastructure and addressing the ripple effect of range anxiety. Nonetheless, the benefits of transitioning to EVs are clear, and the industry is likely to see continued advancements in technology and infrastructure as more companies attempt to make the eclectic trucking future a reality.

About the author: Barrett Young is head of fleet safety at Netradyne

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