Will Self-Driving Trucks Be Electric?

The freight industry is on the cusp of several technological advancements to improve efficiency, safety and transport as a whole. Two big revolutions are being prepped for at the same time: autonomous driving software and battery electric power. However, what does one have to do with the other? While there is some crossover, self-driving semi-trucks and electric battery semi-trucks have different considerations right now in the current marketplace.

Semi-trucks are freight-focused vehicles used for both long-haul journeys across the interstate and ‘last-mile’ trips between distribution hubs and final destinations. They carry life-saving medicines, groceries, clothes, and so much more, across the nation. As self-driving electric trucks and diesel-powered 18-wheelers ship these goods, there are different ideal use-cases for both dependent on range and infrastructure.

The Current State of Electrification

Today, the electric vehicle we’re all most familiar with is likely the consumer car. Several car brands now feature some form of hybrid or fully electric vehicle, enabling many everyday drivers to join the electric revolution. But are there electric semi-trucks? And if so, are electric semi-trucks feasible?

There are – and there’s a vast range of them. Your average electric semi-truck is a zero emissions model with an average range of 200 miles (depending on vehicle configurations, but electric semis with 350 miles of range are in production) when fully charged. Given its mileage, these kinds of trucks are ideally suited for short-haul routes that allow for depot-based charging.

Because our supply chains run on tight timelines and high consumer demands, these semi-trucks need to be charged relatively fast. This requires far more power than the typical fast chargers meant for consumer vehicles. In the same vein, they need significantly more real estate in which to park while they wait for their superchargers to operate.

Range and infrastructure continue to be improved upon in electric 18-wheeler development. Many semi-truck companies are working alongside partners both in the private sector and the government sector to tackle the infrastructure challenge. In the same vein, electric semi-truck designers are thinking ahead. For instance, most electric semi-truck designers focus on “opportunity charging”, meaning that these industrial batteries are charged for short bursts rather than all at once; this begins to address the charging challenge. With new grants, listening sessions, and plans being created every day, we’re moving towards an electric future that’s sustainable for people and places alike.

The industry has also been answering the emissions question with significant results. In 2021, emissions from the transportation sector (including delivery trucks, long-haul freight, and other logistics vehicles) made up 20% of the overall emissions in the United States. As electric Class 8 trucks move into mass production and eventual mass roll-out, that emissions number is expected to continue falling from its 2019 number of 26%.

Although the initial cost of electric cars and electric 18-wheelers is typically higher than the gasoline or diesel counterpart of these vehicles, the total cost of ownership is projected to be lower. Fuel savings are the most obvious cost saving vertical, but these vehicles also typically come with several telematic solutions, which can boost efficiency by minimizing hard braking, providing on-board diagnostics, and more. Overall, electric 18-wheelers do have promising future prospects even in this technology’s early stage.

Autonomy Outlook: Gas vs. Electricity

There are a few different factors needed to consider the gas vs. electricity debate in the autonomous truck sector. Namely, intended use cases.

At Torc, our target use case centers around the long-range, or any journey that exceeds 250 miles. We’re laser-focused on creating software that autonomously drives semi-trucks to-and-from shipping hubs across the country, meaning that long-haul journeys are at the forefront of everything we do. In the same vein, we’re proud to be partnering with Daimler Truck on developing a fully autonomous Freightliner Cascadia: an advanced, diesel-powered vehicle that is purpose-built for an autonomous driving system.

Given the discrepancy between our long-haul needs and the typical electric truck range, Torc’s vision for the immediate future doesn’t yet include electric models. However, that’s not to say that it’s not part of our eventual future. As our world moves towards green practices and electric vehicles become more and more common, we’re open to the possibility that electric 18-wheelers may replace diesel 18-wheelers altogether.

In the meantime, we are still looking ahead to how we can maximize fuel efficiency. Several studies have shown the potential of autonomous trucks to increase fuel efficiency. Driving at a more consistent speed and reducing the amount of excessive braking or acceleration improves fuel economy. The U.S. Department of Transportation is currently researching the potential of autonomous trucks to determine how they could improve fuel use in the future.

Innovations in Efficiency: Hydrogen Fuel Cells

While electric trucks may not be suitable for long-haul freight, hydrogen fuel cell technology may provide a different story entirely. This research is still being carried out, but it has some interesting prospects for the world of autonomous and automotive tech alike. Once deployed, it could be a fuel source appropriate for long-haul autonomous trucking.

A fuel cell is a highly efficient energy conversion device. In the case of hydrogen fuel cells, these devices combine oxygen and hydrogen to generate electricity. Vehicles with fuel cells are still electric vehicles, albeit they don’t need to be charged. Instead, they utilize hydrogen fuel to make their journeys across city streets and highways.

Many autonomous truck companies are working on various forms of hydrogen fueling. From liquid hydrogen to carbon-fiber reinforced vehicle tanks, innovation is happening in this sphere at a rapid rate. At Torc, we’re watching these developments closely in anticipation of ushering forth this new era of automotive excellence.

Electric Semi-Trucks in 2023 and Beyond

Electric vehicles are sure to be part of the way we explore new ways of moving passengers and freight alike. While we’re only just beginning to see a world where electric semi-trucks are for sale, this new tech is growing to new heights every day. We’re excited to see where our autonomous journey and the ongoing development of electric freight trucks takes the automotive industry as a whole.