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Trucking testifies on ‘range anxiety,’ other obstacles to zero-emission vehicles

FedEx, truck stop operators lay out strategies for hitting climate goals in Biden’s infrastructure plan

EV trucks relying on batteries vs. hydrogen fuel cell technology. Photo: kloromanam/Shutterstock)

Trucking interests briefed lawmakers Wednesday on the feasibility of getting to a zero-emissions vehicle world by 2050 — one of President Joe Biden’s climate goals — as Republicans reiterated their vow to keep climate change policy away from the next infrastructure package.

Testifying at a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing on behalf of the National Association of Truck Stop Operators (NATSO), Shameek Konar, CEO of fuel retailer Pilot Flying J, said that establishing an electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure will require a federal funding leg up.

“At this point, the economics of stand-alone charging stations is very challenging,” Konar said, pointing out that “range anxiety” — the fear of running out of power before reaching a destination — is a major factor slowing EV adoption.

“At Pilot we have 58 charging stations, and our utilization rates at these stations are way less than 1%,” he said, which makes it difficult to make the case for EVs to investors. “Both us and the utility sector would benefit from help from the federal government in these early days so that we get adoption and get to critical mass.”

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were interested in how FedEx [NYSE: FDX] planned to beat Biden’s timeline by 10 years, after announcing earlier this month a company-wide goal of zero emissions by 2040. “Our customers are increasingly focused on this issue. They want to do business with transportation providers that are environmentally responsible, but we also have to produce for our shareholders,” testified FedEx Chairman and CEO Fred Smith.

After he “strongly advocated government support” over 10 years ago for EVs in the company’s pickup and delivery fleet, Smith said the FedEx fleet now includes the latest in all-electric and hybrid trucks. He said FedEx will see “positive profit accretion” starting in 2024-2025, “where you’ll get the environmental benefits and you’ll get better economics,” he said.

“[A]n electric pickup and delivery vehicle will have an operating cost that’s about 44% of what an internal combustion-powered equivalent vehicle would be. So it’s really just the acquisition costs, and that’s coming down because of battery production efficiency. We think there will be a positive return.”

Much of the EV discussion centered on the ability of electric batteries and hydrogen fuel cell technology to achieve zero-emission goals particularly for heavy trucks. Jack Allen, CEO of Proterra, which builds electric drivetrains for commercial transit vehicles, explained that batteries are working well in the passenger bus sector.

However, “I don’t think the same is true for over-the-road Class 8 trucks,” Allen said. “I think that’s the best application for hydrogen, but time will tell as batteries get lighter and have greater range, where they will be able to satisfy the needs of trucking along with dynamic charging.”

Getting subsidies for hydrogen power may be more difficult than other zero-emissions options. House T&I Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, said that there were a “number of difficult problems” associated with hydrogen fuel cell power.

“You can’t put it in existing pipelines, so you would have to have a totally new distribution network. Secondly, the question is green hydrogen — and at the moment, producing non-fossil-fuel hydrogen is not particularly cost-effective.”

It’s unclear how much Republicans will be able to influence climate change policies Democrats choose to include in an infrastructure package, but they made it clear they will push back.

 “You will not find bipartisan support for heavy-handed government mandates, one-size-fits-all policies, or the complete upending of our traditional infrastructure programs to enact excessive climate goals that look more like the liberal agenda outlined in the Green New Deal,” House T&I Committee Ranking Member Sam Graves, R-Missouri, told Democratic colleagues before the hearing began.

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John Gallagher

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.