There are more than four million electric vehicles on American roads, but fewer than 1,000 of them are heavy-duty trucks. On Tuesday, the three biggest truck makers announced a push to fix that shortfall, calling on governments and utilities to help them build many more places to charge big rigs.
Daimler Truck, which owns Freightliner. Navistar, which is controlled by Volkswagen. and Volvo Group North America have formed an association to push for chargers, improvements to the electric grid and other measures they say are needed to promote trucks powered by batteries or hydrogen.
The new organization, Powering America’s Commercial Transportation, will be based in Washington and will also be open to suppliers, nonprofits and other groups.
The companies’ decision to cooperate underscores the extent to which the transition away from fossil fuels depends on government support and decisions made in Washington and state capitals. The Inflation Reduction Act, which Democrats passed in 2022, provides $1 billion for electric trucks, including tax credits of up to $40,000 for companies that buy them, as well as subsidies for charging infrastructure.
But officials are just beginning to dole out the money, and trucking companies complain they’ve gotten less attention from federal and state governments than automakers.
“There’s a lot of funding that’s available out there from the federal government,” said Dawn Fenton, vice president of government relations and public affairs at Volvo Group North America, which owns Volvo Trucks and Mack Trucks. “So far there has been little focus on heavy-duty charging infrastructure.”
Only nine fast-charging stations in the United States are capable of serving heavy trucks, according to Energy Department figures.
Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gases in the United States, and trucks, buses and vans are responsible for 29 percent of vehicle emissions, according to Calstart, a nonprofit group whose members work in industry as well as government. Poorer communities tend to suffer more from truck pollution because they are more likely to be near industrial zones or highways.
Eliminating these emissions is difficult. An electric truck requires a large, heavy battery that reduces how much the vehicle can carry.
Zero-emission trucks are also two or three times more expensive than diesel trucks, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, although prices are expected to drop as companies ramp up production.
Truck makers say they are committed to selling emission-free vehicles, but environmental groups have accused them of trying to block policies that would force the industry to move faster.
This month, the Sierra Club, along with 40 other advocacy groups, sent letters to the CEOs of Daimler Truck and Volvo Group accusing them of trying to derail stricter emissions standards. In comments on the proposed regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency, both truck makers pushed for a slower introduction of new standards.
In the letter to Volvo Group CEO Martin Lundstedt, the group wrote: “Volvo Trucks USA must focus its efforts and resources on electrifying the transportation sector now, especially in the communities most affected by truck emissions. , instead of fighting the policies needed to move the whole system faster.” The groups sent a similar letter to Martin Daum, the CEO of Daimler Truck.
(Volvo Group is not part of Volvo Car and Daimler Truck is separate from Mercedes-Benz.)
Truck manufacturers face less competitive pressure than car companies. In the auto industry, Tesla has won over customers who previously drove cars made by Mercedes, General Motors and Volkswagen, forcing those companies to respond. The Tesla Model Y sport utility vehicle was the best-selling passenger car of any kind worldwide in 2023, according to JATO Dynamics, a market research firm.
No pioneering truck manufacturer has had a comparable impact. Tesla has developed an electric long-haul truck called the Semi, but the company hasn’t started selling it in large numbers.
“We would have moved faster in the last five years if there had been a zero-emissions trucking company taking the lead,” said Katherine García, director of a Sierra Club program that promotes clean transportation.
Nikola once aimed to be the Tesla of the trucking industry, but has struggled since its founder, Trevor Milton, was accused of defrauding investors by lying about the company’s technology capabilities. Mr Milton was sentenced in December to four years in prison after a jury convicted him. He denies wrongdoing and is appealing. Nikola, under new management, shipped 79 vehicles in the first nine months of 2023, the latest figures the company has disclosed.
Truck manufacturers argue that they can’t be expected to sell battery-powered trucks when there are almost no places to charge them. Electric trucks require extremely powerful chargers and therefore larger connections to the electrical grid than are readily available. Many utilities must upgrade old distribution lines, transformers and other equipment to be able to provide the power needed to fuel multiple trucks at once.
Brien Sheahan, Navistar’s head of government relations and regulatory affairs, said one customer had ordered a fleet of electric trucks and installed 20 chargers in its warehouse. But, he said, “they couldn’t turn it on from the utility.”
Shortages in the power grid “will be a constraint on our ability to scale the industry», said Mr. Sheahan, former chairman and chief executive of the Illinois Commerce Commission, which regulates electric utilities.
The Sierra Club’s Ms. García said that despite slow progress so far, she was optimistic. He noted that sales of electric delivery trucks and other smaller trucks have been growing rapidly, in part because California and other states are forcing manufacturers to reduce emissions and providing incentives to truck buyers.
Delivery trucks, such as those used by Amazon, require less energy and typically drive relatively short distances. As a result, these vehicles can be charged overnight on less powerful chargers than those needed for heavy trucks.
“The market is moving really fast,” Ms. García said. “We’re at the point where it’s going to really accelerate.”