Will Electric 18-Wheelers Become the Future of Transportation?

By: Lauren | Last updated: Mar 25, 2024

In recent years, there has been much debate about electric vehicles, centered on whether or not they are the best solution for humans and the environment.

But while many people agree that electric vehicles (EVs) are the future of passenger vehicles, far fewer believe that the same technology can safely and efficiently be applied to semi trucks.

The Plans For Electric Vehicles

In recent years, significant developments have been made to see a major transition from gas-powered vehicles to those that run on electricity.

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A photograph of a small electric vehicle charging

Source: Wikimedia

Some of the world’s largest motor vehicle manufacturers have pumped billions into the industry as nations like the US set goals to see half of all vehicles sold by 2030 be “zero-emissions vehicles,” per Al Jazeera.

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Future Plans For Electric Semi Trucks in the US

With such extensive plans, it wasn’t long before larger vehicles such as those used in the transportation industry became a topic of conversation.

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Promotional photo of Tesla’s Semi, an all electric 18-wheeler

Source: @aTechES/YouTube

According to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, trucking is an integral part of the US economy, transporting over $10 billion of goods. However, it is also a source of pollution. 

Semi-Trucks Produce a lot of Pollution

The EESI’s report suggests that large transportation vehicles emit several forms of pollution into the atmosphere.

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An image of a semi-truck driving along a road

Source: Wikimedia

This includes emitting up to seven percent of the total greenhouse gases by humans in 2020.

Semi-Truck Manufacturer Set 2030 Targets

With the world’s largest vehicle companies implementing greener goals, many truck manufacturers have pledged to do their part by 2030.

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A man is pictured working on a Semi-Truck in the factory

Source: Freepik

Semi-Truck manufacturers have committed to targets which will see at least 30% of their new trucks being zero-emission vehicles, including fully electric models. 

Tesla’s Fully Electric Semi

As with all things EV, Tesla is once again leading the pack. The famous company officially released its fully electric semi-truck to the public back in 2023. 

Tesla’s promotional photo for the Semi electric truck

Source: Tesla

Their futuristic semi-truck vehicle hit the market five years after it was first announced.

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Tesla Semi Truck Runs Runs For 500 Miles

According to Tesla’s website, the semi-truck can travel between 300 to 500 miles when fully charged.

A black Tesla semi-truck is pictured parked in a lot

Source: Wikimedia

It can recharge up to 70% in 30 minutes and uses significantly less energy than a diesel-powered semi-truck.

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The Challenges of Electric Semis

Volvo and Freightliner also have their own electric Class 8 semis available for purchase, which have almost identical specs to Tesla’s.

The Volvo VNR Electric driving on a road/Freightliner’s eCascadia electric semi on a forest road

Source: Volvo/Freightliner

These vehicles are becoming increasingly popular, and they have numerous benefits for human health and the environment.

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The Benefits of Electric Trucks

The EESI report mentions several benefits that would come with a transition to electric-powered trucks.

A Tesla semi-truck is pictured delivering goods for Pepsi

Source: Wikimedia

Their report states, “Implementing zero-emission trucking could prevent 66,800 premature deaths, 1.75 million asthma attacks, and 8.5 million lost work days between 2020 and 2050—providing $735 billion in cumulative U.S. public health benefits.”

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Lower Cost of Ownership

The report goes on to explain that electricity is much less expensive than diesel fuel, saving truck drivers and companies money during long hauls.

A man is pictured standing in front of a semi-truck as it charges

Source: Freepik

The EESI cites a 2021 study from the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab that suggests owners may experience “net savings of $200,000 over the semi-truck’s 15-year lifetime” due to various factors.

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Experts Suggest Electric Trucks May be Troublesome

While the EESI and governments around the world appear to support a transition to fully electric trucks, not everyone agrees with the plan.

A semi-truck mechanic is pictured inspecting a potential problem

Source: Freepik

These vehicles may sound great on paper, but many experts in the field argue that there are far too many issues surrounding the use of electric semi-trucks to make them practical or even safe.

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Study Conducted by the American Transport Research Institute Finds Shocking Results

Jeffrey Short, Vice President of the American Transport Research Institute, recently addressed a study that he and the ATRI had completed regarding electric semi trucks with the Capital Press.

Jeffrey Short, Vice President of the American Transport Research Institute

Source: ATRI

Short explained that after analyzing the research they collected, “it still boggles [his] mind” that anyone believes electric trucks should or even could completely replace the standard diesel-fueled Class 8s.

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Short Says There Are “Three Very Large Challenges”

The VP of ATRI told the press that they found “three very large challenges” with the supposedly promising electric semi trucks on the market.

Digital illustration of an electric semi truck driving on the road

Source: iStock

These three major problems are the electricity needed to power the semis, the minerals needed to manufacture their jumbo-sized batteries, and the fact that electric semis weigh almost twice as much as regular trucks.

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The Electricity Issue

First on Short’s list is a major problem centered on  electricity. 

Power lines of an electrical grid during sunset

Source: Freepik

He reports in the ATRI study that power generation throughout the country would need to increase by 40% to support a nation of electric semi-trucks.

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Are They Really Better For the Planet?

In order to produce the electricity required for the expansion of electric trucks, far more gas, coal, and various other forms of fossil fuels would have to be used.

A person is pictured holding a small plant while standing in a dry desert

Source: Wikimedia

Therefore, the idea that electric semi trucks would be better for the planet is, in some ways, a myth.

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Immense Infrastructure Changes Would Have to Be Implemented

Not to mention the fact that there are currently nowhere near enough EC charging ports for an extensive fleet of electric 18-wheelers.

An electric vehicle charging at a public charging outlet

Source: Freepik

In addition to adding charging outlets nationwide, thousands of miles of electrical lines and server farms would have to be built.

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The Ongoing Battery Debate

Another aspect of electric semis that concerns the ATRI is the sheer amount of lithium and other minerals required to make thousands of the jumbo-sized batteries they need.

The inside of an electric vehicle during manufacturing

Source: Wikipedia

While people like Elon Musk are often quoted as suggesting that “lithium is abundant,” mass-producing enormous batteries is not as the Tesla founder says. 

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Vast Amount of Minerals Required to Build Batteries

The ATRI estimates that the USA will need 35 times the annual production of lithium to transition from diesel-powered 18-wheelers into an all-electric fleet. 

Two men in orange hard hats are pictured working in a mine

Source: Freepik

The US must also increase its production of other mineable minerals such as graphite, antimony, cobalt, and copper.

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The US Doesn’t Have Enough Mines

It’s not just the sheer amount of lithium and other minerals that the trucks will need that raises concerns, it’s also the fact that the US has very few mines on its home turf.

A large lithium mine as seen from a distance

Source: Freepik

Currently, China controls the vast majority of the mines for these minerals, and they will clearly choose to power their own electric vehicles and tech devices before offering any to the USA.

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The Weight Dilemma

The third issue the ATRI noted was that electric semi trucks are significantly heavier than their diesel counterparts. While a standard 18-wheeler weighs about 18,000 pounds, an eclectic semi is around 32,000 pounds.

A large semi truck drives on a high bridge over a mountain

Source: Freepik

And the ATRI believes that America’s existing infrastructure, including its roads, bridges, and guardrails would have to be redesigned and rebuilt to handle the excess weight. A project which the ATRI reports would cost the country trillions of dollars.

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Let’s Talk Numbers

Speaking of costs, another aspect of transitioning from diesel-powered trucks to electric ones is that they cost a whole lot more. 

Woman shopping for groceries with a list

Source: Freepik

Not only in the initial price tag, as electric semis cost between $400,000 and $500,000 whereas standard trucks only cost about $150,000, but also because of the increased costs of electricity, charging stations, mining, and new roadways.

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Worries Postulated by the ATRI

Therefore, the ATRI worries that the higher costs for transport will lead to higher inflation rates on consumer goods.

A Walmart truck driving on a road near a Walmart sign

Source: Walmart/Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, this will most likely lead to the average American spending more on groceries, deliveries, and pretty much everything else that’s moved in a semi-truck.

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Electric Semi Trucks Are Simply Unrealistic

The general consensus from the ATRI is that, at this point in time, electric semi trucks as replacements for the diesel-powered options are simply unrealistic.

Two semi trucks driving down a highway

Source: Freepik

In their reports, they believe they outlined several key factors explaining why it’s almost impossible to begin a massive transition from gas-powered to electric trucks. 

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A Plan For the Future

Suppose nations like the US manage to efficiently increase electricity production, open their own mines, replace the roadways, and companies can find ways to reduce the cost and weight of electric semis. In that case, it may be possible to transition in the future.

A row of green trucks parked in a parking lot during the daytime.

Source: Brian Stalter/Unsplash

However, as of right now, it appears the nation simply lacks the infrastructure, and a full transition to electric trucks could negatively affect the American economy.

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