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Heavy-duty electric truck driver ditches diesel (with video)

Quiet operation and keeping up with stop-and-go traffic are big selling points

Veteran trucker Karl Williams relishes being able to keep up with stop-and-go traffic in the Freightliner eCascadia he drives for NFI Industries. (Photo: Alan Adler/FreightWaves)

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Over two decades and 2 million miles, Karl Williams has driven practically every diesel-powered truck brand on the road. Now behind the wheel of an electric-powered rig, he relishes keeping his place in stop-and-go traffic and misses neither the engine clatter nor the smell of diesel fuel.

“I never imagined I would be driving an electric truck,” the 57-year-old Williams told FreightWaves during a recent drive in a Freightliner eCascadia along California State Route 71.

Karl Williams with the Freightliner eCascadia electric truck he drives for NFI Industries. (Photo: Alan Adler/FreightWaves)

When NFI Industries, Williams’ employer, became a partner with Daimler Trucks North America’s Freightliner Electric Innovation Fleet, Williams agreed to drive battery-powered drayage routes between Chino in Southern California’s Inland Empire and the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles.

Unless compelled, he won’t be going back to diesel trucking.

“I drove all kinds of trucks over the years,” he said. ”It’s a lot of work compared to this. These trucks drive themselves. You don’t get beat up.”

Piling up miles


Williams’ typical day consists of two runs: driving an empty drayage trailer to the port and hauling a load back to NFI’s site. As his truck recharges after the first run, he climbs into another eCascadia and repeats the roundtrip of just over 100 miles.

“They want us to put as many miles on each truck as possible,” he said. “That’s the only way they are going to find any issues.”

In about four months, NFI’s fleet of nine electric day cabs has racked up about 50,000 miles.

Taming traffic

So what is different about hauling a trailer by electric power?

“We drive in massive traffic here. As far as [this truck] goes, I barely even use the brake.”

When Williams takes his foot off the throttle, one of three levels of regenerative braking takes over based on his selection. As the truck slows, braking energy flows to the engine, extending how far it can go before recharging.

Traditional diesel engine braking forces compressed air through the exhaust valve in the engine’s cylinder, slowing a truck by retarding the motor in stop-and-go driving and on steep downgrades. The noise level is about the same as a household garbage disposal.

When it is time to accelerate, the eCascadia’s single gear provides immediate power.

That matters during all-too-frequent slowdowns on California freeways. When traffic begins moving, Williams keeps pace. In a diesel, he would be left behind, working through gears to get up to speed.

“I would have the space of two diesel trucks in front of me. By the time I get going, five cars jump in front of me,” he said. “With this truck, I can stay right with the cars rather than being dropped back every time we stop and go.”

Even with the truck restricted to 60 mph, Williams said he can shave 15 minutes off the drive from the ports to Chino in heavy traffic.

With advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) like adaptive cruise control, which keeps his truck at a set distance from the vehicle in front of him, and automatic emergency braking, Williams also drives a safer truck.

Juice watch

But he does need to keep an eye on how much charge he has to avoid being stranded. Sometimes that means turning down a dispatcher’s request to deviate from a route.

In a Freightliner eCascadia electric truck, the fuel gauge is replaced by a battery state-of-charge readout. (Photo: Alan Adler/FreightWaves)

“You know your limitations,” Williams said. “I’ve been driving these for almost three months and I have never been stuck anywhere. I’ve actually had this at the port for eight hours, down there all day, and drove back. So I did basically an eight-hour day with one charge.”

Port side

At the ports, pickup wait times can stretch to six hours.

“When we go into the port in the summertime, it’s all metal cans [shipping containers], asphalt and concrete,” he said. “The temperature rises so much more because you’re sitting there between all those hot cans. So you’ve basically got to have a diesel motor running all the time.”

Not Williams. He approaches in near silence. Since a battery-powered truck has no engine, it has none of the associated noise.

“You sneak up on people,” Williams said. “That’s kind of scared a couple of guys in our yard. I’ll pull up to the gate and somebody has their back turned and you’ll just cruise up.”

There’s an additional benefit.

“The [lack of] noise is better for a person’s hearing,” he said. “At the end of the day, my nerves aren’t rattled.”

What about smog?

The eCascadia emits no tailpipe emissions because it doesn’t have a tailpipe. Its batteries provide 550 kilowatt hours (kWh) of usable capacity. The truck travels up to 250 miles on a single charge range which can be 80% replenished in about 90 minutes. Williams said his state of charge might drop 1% in two hours of quiet and comfortable waiting.

“I put it in neutral, I set the brake. I’ve got the air on full blast and I just sit there. I’m comfortable. I’ve got the radio.”

Polluted pathway

WIth a passenger riding along on a recent Wednesday morning, Williams discussed the ecological damage to which the trucks he previously drove contributed.

“I see trucks on the road right now that I have to drive behind that are blowing smoke constantly,” he said. “And I’ve got to breathe that all day long. If you drive along the freeway, you look at all the plants. They’re all dead. Nothing’s green anymore.”

California calls neighborhoods closest to the ports “disadvantaged communities” because of pollution from trucks idling while awaiting pickups. The South Coast Air Quality Management District says mobile sources account for more than 80% of the remaining smog-forming emissions in the region.

“You see that white smoke going everywhere on that truck?” Williams asks, gesturing to a semi a few lengths ahead. “It’s all fuel being burned. Nobody needs to breathe that.”

66 Comments

  1. Zach

    So owner operators are supposed to survive on a truck that only last for eight hours on a charge? And when rates are the lowest they’ve ever been I’m pretty sure all the brokers and everybody associated in the industry are going to drop the $.30 per mile fuel surcharge because we’re not using Fuel, anymore which means we can’t make any money, so yeah worthless?? Or maybe just for big fleets because they can go from one truck to another to finish one days worth of work when everybody else cant,,maybe not ready for the technology much?

  2. Zach

    Yeah eight hours of drive time on an electric engine isn’t gonna work for owner operators so it’s basically worthless and they’ll probably drop our fuel surcharge for driving an electric truck now
    And when rates are at the lowest they’ve been for a long time we can’t afford to lose $.30 a mile

  3. Blaine carvalho

    Actually, white smoke is unburned fuel. Black smoke is excessive, but burned fuel. White smoke could also be a sign of coolant being burned, Could also mean an issue with the garbage emissions system but I choose not to have much experience with after treatments, so I could be mistaken. Either way, if you have white smoke exiting the tailpipe, something is wrong. Electric trucks may make sense for short city runs, but that’s about it. I’ll keep my diesel. 15 minutes to fill up and I have my full range available. Look at california drayage truck exemptions and you’ll know why all those trucks smoke, only have 3 tractor brakes working and are running on the inner layer of tire rubber.

  4. Seymour Butts

    So there are large groups around who want the United States to banish coal use and fossil fuel use…how will the electricity for these trucks be generated if these groups ban Coal, Fuel and Nuclear power plants ??

  5. Larry Teague Jr

    Lol I wonder with all theses electric power cars and truck. This is what I wonder what are you going to do with all those dead batteries hate to say it those electric power going to cause more issues than gas in the long run

    1. Markus Roder

      First of all, “dead batteries” are considered dead when the can still hold 80% state of charge.
      You can use them in home applications, to retain power during blackouts, or to even out power usage if you have solar panels on your roof.

      Also, they aren’t (very) toxic at all. You can use Lithium to prepare food if you want. The few heavy metals contained in a battery (i.e. nickel or cobalt) can relatively easily (although currently only expensively) be recycled.

  6. Stephen Magrowski

    Electric truck sounds great, accept…… what about the damage to the earth mining lithium? Generating electricity with natural gas and coal to charge it? Since California banned trucks older then 2012 how are you seeing smoke from diesel trucks? What was the sense to putting egr valves, soot collectors, and urea treatment on a truck? If you can only go 250 miles thats a half a days work only.
    I think battery power has a ways to go. Good start, so was the battery powered bus I rode on in elementary school from Boyertown Body Works in 1967.

    1. Mark Roest

      We are developing non-lithium, ceramic semiconductor batteries which will store 3 to 5 kWh/kg, ten times the energy (300 to 500 Wh/kg) that the next-generation lithium batteries now being developed are targeting. We primarily use commodity ceramic materials with minimal environmental impacts.
      The factory will be able to produce more capacity per year than a Gigafactory, so there will be no shortage, as more factories are built. We could be in mass production within 2 to 3 years.

      1. Chad Guenther

        Do you really think the government and the oil industry is going to take this lying down. There are too many people making billions from oil and they are not going to give that up

      2. Gabriel Staley

        Are these batteries as good as the new supper capacitors coming out. Caps can charge instantly and hold more. Are simpler to build and weigh less.

  7. Engr. (K.D.) Glen Glendinning

    Even the box walls of a fridge van/trailer could be constructed as a super capacitor.

    Using suitable layered materials to both store charge and provide temperature insulation properties.

Comments are closed.

Alan Adler

Alan Adler is an award-winning journalist who worked for The Associated Press and the Detroit Free Press. He also spent two decades in domestic and international media relations and executive communications with General Motors.