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For truckers driving EVs, there's no going back

Gary LaBush remembers the first time he sat behind the wheel of an electric Ford e-transit delivery truck at the Frito-Lay distribution center in Queens. Like most first-time EV truck drivers, LaBush wondered if the vehicle was actually on. "I was like, 'What's going on?'" he recalled. "There was no noise - and no fumes."

Now, LaBush trains other drivers on how to operate a fleet of 40 delivery trucks at the Frito-Lay facility. The 49-year-old, who has worked at the company for over two decades, said he would struggle if he had to return to gas. "I wouldn't want to do it," he said. "After being in this - it's just night and day."

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LaBush belongs to a small but growing group of commercial medium-to-heavy-duty truck drivers who use electric trucks. These drivers - many of whom operate local or regional routes that don't require hundreds of miles on the road in a day - generally welcome the transition to electric, praising their new trucks' handling, acceleration, smoothness and quiet operation.

But some companies and trucking associations worry this shift, spurred in part by a California law mandating a switch to electric or emissions-free trucks by 2042, is happening too fast. While electric trucks might work well in some cases, they argue, the upfront costs of the vehicles and their charging infrastructure are often too heavy a lift.

For the United States to meet its climate goals, virtually all trucks must be zero-emissions by 2050. While trucks are only 4 percent of the vehicles on the road, they make up almost a quarter of the country's transportation emissions.

On most of America's roads, electric trucks are an anomaly. According to an Environmental Defense Fund analysis of the nation's 12.2 million truck fleet, there are almost 13,000 electric trucks - which can be defined as Class 2B to Class 8 vehicles, or anything from a step-up van to a large tractor-trailer - on the road today. Around 10,000 of those trucks were just put on the road in 2023, up from 2,000 the year before.

Amazon, for example, has ordered and deployed thousands of electric delivery vans made by Rivian; the company says it has electric trucks operating in 1,800 cities in the United States. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) FedEx has electric trucks rolling through the streets of Los Angeles. The logistics company Schneider has dozens of Class 8 electric semi-trucks delivering loads throughout Southern California.

And the drivers operating them say they love driving electric. Marty Boots, a 66-year-old driver for Schneider in South El Monte, Calif., appreciates the lightness and the smoothness of his Freightliner eCascadia semi-truck. "Diesel was like a college wrestler," he said. "And the electric is like a ballet dancer."

Boots, who also trains other drivers on how to optimize the battery in the electric truck, said some drivers were hesitant when first trying out the technology. But once they try it, he said, most are sold. "You get back into diesel and it's like, 'What's wrong with this thing?'" he said. "Why is it making so much noise? Why is it so hard to steer?"

"Everyone who has had an EV has no aspirations to go back to diesel at this point," said Khari Burton, who drives an electric Volvo VNR in the Los Angeles area for transport company IMC. "We talk about it and it's all positivity. I really enjoy the smoothness . . . and just the quietness as well."

Mike Roeth, the executive director of the North American Council for Freight Efficiency, said many drivers have reported that the new vehicles are easier on their bodies - thanks to both less rocking off the cab, assisted steering and the quiet motor. "Part of my hypothesis is that it will help truck driver retention," he said. "We're seeing people who would retire driving a diesel truck now working more years with an electric truck."

Most of the electric trucks on the road today are doing local or regional routes, which are easier to manage with a truck that gets only up to 250 miles of range. "We're building from areas that have a fairly defined route," said Jason Mathers, associate vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund's zero-emissions truck initiative. "Or within a fairly defined geography - they come back to the same place every night."

LaBush, for example, drives his Frito-Lay delivery truck around the Queens metro area delivering products to supermarkets, bodegas and delis; his truck has an estimated range of 108 miles and only needs to be charged once or twice a week. "We usually don't let it go below 50 percent," he explained.

Boots's deliveries for Schneider are more variable - most days, if his mileage tops out at 200 or so, he can remain in one truck. Other times, he says, he'll drop the trailer and switch in a new truck if he needs longer range for the day.

Charging and range are the primary reasons some companies are hesitant to go electric - or have found the transition challenging. Jim Gillis, the president of the Pacific region for IMC, said his team has found that their six EV trucks are best suited for trips less than 25 miles. "Coming from the port to our warehouse, generally that driver can enjoy three to four trips before we have to get that charged," Gillis said.

But Gillis worries that the transition isn't ready for prime time. Volvo has recalled the trucks six times, causing them to rotate out of commission and forcing drivers back into diesel temporarily. "We're not seeing a ton of qualified technicians in the shops," Gillis said. "You're paying a penalty when you have a truck that goes into the shop for three weeks." The company is planning to introduce a number of hydrogen trucks to balance out their electric ones.

Trucking advocates say electric has a long way to go before it can take on longer routes. "If you're running very local, very short mileage, there may be a vehicle that can do that type of route," said Mike Tunnell, the executive director of environmental affairs for the American Trucking Association. "But for the average haul of 400 miles, there's just nothing that's really practical today."

Lewie Pugh, the executive vice president of the Owner-Operated Independent Drivers Association, points out that long-haul trucking already has a parking problem: There are not enough safe and secure spaces for drivers on the road. "We definitely don't have enough places to put chargers," he said. "If you can't answer that for an automobile, for heaven's sake, forget it for a truck."

Some truck companies and advocates say they need further incentives to push the industry into the next phase - and help getting the required power and permits to install charging infrastructure. While trucks can sometimes charge on public fast chargers, many of those fast chargers aren't set up to accommodate something as large as a semi-truck.

The drivers who are going electric, for their part, feel that they're on the leading edge of a big transformation. "I want to be happy that I started it," LaBush said, "for the young kids growing up and the next generation."

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