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May 25, 2021

The impact of electric trucks on container transport costs


Containers are one of the most widely used solutions in international trade. They are often seen travelling on large cargo ships, but before that, they are transported by lorries. Consequently, road transport also plays an important role in shipping.

Unfortunately, because they are so widespread, the amount of smog and pollution they produce is just too much. This is why we are talking about electric trucks. This is a new way of managing transport with an eye to the environment, but not only. So let's see how the impact of these new vehicles affects container transport costs.

Electric trucks: What they are and what advantages they bring

It may seem hard to believe, but in reality, the electric motor was already being used in the 1930s. In fact, the first prototypes were tested on carriages and, later, on the first models of cars. However, at the beginning of the 20th century, the first internal combustion engines were invented and they did not take long to replace the electric ones.

The latter, however, were never 'forgotten'; on the contrary, they continued their development throughout the century. In fact, they continued to develop throughout the century, leading up to the end of the twentieth century, when the - now established - car manufacturers also took up the challenge of electric motors. Over the years, thanks in part to technological innovations, electric vehicles multiplied and electric motors were also used for the first time in heavy vehicles such as trucks.

How does an electric truck work?

In a nutshell, the principle on which an electric motor is based is very similar to the one used by radio-controlled cars, but obviously much more complex. The fuel tank of conventional vehicles is transformed into a battery (called an accumulator) which stores electrical energy and it is thanks to this that the vehicle can run.

As you can imagine, the advantagesof the electric motor are many. First and foremost, the fact that it does not require fuel, which means it can save twice as much money as it does the environment. The running costs are also greatly reduced.

This concept has been applied to a broader vision, so the idea was to use electric trucks to transport goods and containers. However, as with all things, these vehicles can have weaknesses. For example, such as battery life, which in turn has other limitations (more on this below).

Will electric trucks really revolutionise container transport?

Although lorries account for less than 2% of vehicles travelling on the road, they are actually responsible for 22% of the CO2 emissions of all road transport. What's more, the distance they travel is often less than 300 kilometres. This means that they could easily be replaced by electric trucks.

As mentioned above, electrically driven vehicles are zero-emission vehicles and it is not difficult to see, therefore, what enormous benefits they bring in terms of pollution. However, industry experts were initially sceptical about replacing fuel with electricity.

This is because lithium batteries (the ones that make up electric motors) are too big and heavy, and if the aim was to provide the same performance as a fuel-powered truck, the battery would have to take up a large part of a truck's load.

Two other limitations are the low battery autonomy and recharging. In fact, electric vehicles need time (to recharge) and, above all, special infrastructure to be able to use them. Therefore, being heavier and slower could cause delays along the way.

The impact on costs

However, choosing this greener option would not only make the journey more environmentally friendly, but also less expensive. In fact, the maintenance and running costs for electric trucks are significantly lower than those that run on fuel. This is explained by research from DOE's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California.

The two institutes took class 8 trucks that still had an internal combustion engine as an example and studied the benefits of replacing them with electric counterparts. Considering the current cost of a battery pack, which provides a range of 600 kilometres on a single charge, they found that 13% of the total cost of ownership would be saved per mile travelled (about 1.5 km).

Translated into dollars, that would be a $200,000 saving over the lifetime of the vehicle, from the initial investment. In addition, the research also shows that by reducing the production costs of batteries, savings of up to 50% of the total cost of ownership per kilometre driven could be achieved.

Finally, Nykvist and Olsson have carried out another study which they set out in their article "The feasibility of heavy battery electric trucks". With regard to the problem of batteries that are too heavy, they believe that the times in which we live are favourable for accelerating their development.

The aim would be to create fast charging techniques. This would mean having fewer batteries on board, charging them more often - but they emphasise - very quickly. They have shown that high-power fast charging would allow an economic performance that improves as the weight of the electric vehicle increases.

In short, the energy savings would be directly proportional to the size of the truck, i.e. as one grows, so does the other. Therefore, if you take into account the transport of containers, which are very heavy, this solution seems to be really perfect.