Synop co-founder Gagan Dhillon considers drayage trucks, which move freight from ports to distribution warehouses, as a good entry point for more commercial electric vehicles to make their way into the logistics sector.
New York-based Synop is a charging and energy management software platform for commercial EVs. Dhillon founded the company with Andrew Blejde in 2021. Synop’s customers include OEMs, fleet operators and real estate firms, such as Prologis and The Lion Electric Co.
“Drayage was something that I had in mind when we started [Synop] because I saw a lot of the efforts that the ports were making to decarbonize just their own vehicles,” Dhillon told FreightWaves. “You think about these loaders that they have, the little autonomous trucks that drive around the ports, some ports were starting to electrify them.”
Dhillon said improvements in battery technology and EV commercial trucks make battery-electric trucks ideal for operators that want to decarbonize parts of their supply chains.
“If you think about where battery technology is, a typical Volvo VNR electric truck has about 130 to 140 miles of range. You can do multiple trips with that from places like California’s Inland Empire to the Port of Long Beach and back,” Dhillon said. “The use case for drayage is really perfect. The charging technology can have you charged within 90 minutes and be back up on the road, so the driver gets to meet their downtime requirements as well.”
Medium- and heavy-duty trucks are one of the largest transportation-related sources of greenhouse gas emissions every year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Commercial trucks accounted for about 23% of emissions from the transportation sector in 2021.
A recent study found that 483 premature deaths and 15,468 asthma attacks could be attributed to heavy-duty drayage trucks in 2012 in Southern California alone.
California pushes for zero-emissions drayage vehicles by 2035
Widespread adoption of medium- and heavy-duty electric trucks has been slowly increasing since 2016, when fewer than 17,000 were sold across the globe, according to the International Energy Agency. About 60,000 medium- and heavy-duty trucks were sold worldwide in 2022, with the majority of sales in China.
“We’re seeing EVs spreading. It’s the same fleets that are investing in electrification on the West Coast that are looking to take that to the East Coast because the total cost of ownership (TCO) of electrifying these assets is going to quickly catch up to the TCO of a diesel vehicle,” Dhillon said.
Last year, Port Houston acquired its first EV drayage truck, which is being used to transport freight at its Bayport Container Terminal. The truck, manufactured by Nikola Corp., has a range of up to 350 miles, and it can charge up to 80% in under two hours.
Port Houston has also transitioned its crane fleet to where 40% of its yard cranes are hybrid-electric, along with all of its ship-to-shore cranes powered by electric batteries.
“The yard tractor was purchased as part of a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality grant focused on reducing emissions at ports,” Lisa Ashley, director of media relations at the port, told FreightWaves. “This was an early step in a long-range plan for fleet upgrades to zero emissions cargo handling equipment and will be a part of the port’s carbon neutral roadmap.
Port Houston has announced a goal to be carbon neutral by 2050. The port is working toward eventually eliminating dockside emissions and helping implement green shipping corridors as well as green marine and road fuels.
“To do that we are engaging communities, fleet operators, manufacturers, and electricity/fuel providers on the best ways to move ahead, while also facing the reality that markets are just beginning to develop,” Ashley said. “Ultimately zero-emissions equipment will be a key part of supply chains , and the port’s role is to help accelerate and de-risk the business decisions needed to make that happen, in part by seeking additional grants to help, as well as promoting collaboration.
California has the largest number of electric trucks operating at port facilities in the U.S., driven by regulation, incentives and the Advanced Clean Fleets regulation enacted in April. The law requires all new drayage trucks registered in the state (over 140,500 trucks) to be zero emission starting in 2024, with full implementation by 2035.
“California has a lot of regulation around EVs. … They started to put in place not only regulations around their ports but around warehousing as well for a certain percentage of trucks that interact with warehouses to be electric,” Dhillon said. “We found that the larger fleets that we work with, their drivers really enjoy using electric vehicles. It’s less harsh on their bodies when they’re driving.”
Freight operators at the Port of Savannah in Georgia have also shown interest in using EV drayage trucks as a gateway into more EV adoption across its logistics chain, Dhillon said.
“That adoption at the [Port of Savannah] is probably a little bit slower. The operation there is just starting to get kicked off,” Dhillon said. “But there is interest from significant fleet operators in the Port of Savannah to follow what’s happening in California, follow what’s happening with the Port of Long Beach to the Port of Oakland to be able to have electrification also take hold at the Port of Savannah.”
EV fleet adoption requires more infrastructure, interoperability
Some of the barriers for adopting EV for widespread commercial use at ports include finding available locations for charging stations. Electric charging depots need to be located at ports or nearby for fleets to power their vehicles.
Some of the most recent investments include carrier Schneider National opening a 4.8-megawatt charging facility in El Monte, east of Los Angeles, and NFI Industries, a supply chain services provider, which is scheduled to complete construction of a charging station for its Class 8 battery-electric trucks in by the end of the year in Ontario, California.
“What I’ve seen is creativity, companies installing chargers at warehouses they already own,” Dhillon said. “Now we are seeing companies like TeraWatt Infrastructure that are buying up premium land and to install very specific depots.”
Other challenges to more EV use in the commercial space include hardware/software interoperability and ease of use for trucks, drivers and charging stations.
“Our charging platform is super easy to use for drivers, because the ease of use matters with interoperability,” Dhillon said. “It doesn’t matter how great your software is, if you can’t simply plug that truck in and start charging because the charger and vehicle don’t speak to one another, then it’s not going to matter. That’s the No. 1 problem that we have to solve and we are solving.”
More articles by Noi Mahoney