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Electric Truck Tech Has ‘Long Ways’ to Go

3 min read

Craig Harper is just as eager as any devout environmentalist to see alternative-fuel vehicles come into vogue.

Harper is the chief sustainability officer at J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. He took the new position in November after years as the company’s chief operating officer.

J.B. Hunt has been testing electric vehicles as an alternative to diesel tractors. In August 2020, it made its first all-electric delivery for Walmart Inc. of Bentonville in the Los Angeles area.

The problem, Harper said, is that electric vehicles are not yet economically feasible for transportation companies. Harper appeared on the “Business Integrity School” podcast in September and spoke of J.B. Hunt’s desire to become more environmentally friendly.

The BIS podcast, hosted by Cindy Moehring, is a part of the University of Arkansas’ Sam M. Walton College of Business, which started the Business Integrity Leadership Initiative in January 2020.

The tractor that J.B. Hunt used in its pilot tests is a Class 8 truck manufactured by Daimler Trucks North America. It has a 525-horsepower engine that, on a full charge, can cover a range of up to 250 miles with zero tailpipe emissions.

A diesel engine, Harper pointed out, has a range of 1,400 miles, and there is a robust refueling infrastructure for diesel, which is not the case for electric vehicles.

The company also added five all-electric box trucks a few years ago to its Final Mile Delivery segment in California and Houston. Those trucks had a range of 80 miles and are used for in-city deliveries.

In J.B. Hunt’s inaugural environmental, social and governance, or ESG, report in July, the company said one of its goals was to reduce the amount of Scope 1 carbon emissions by 2025 and convert a quarter of its fleet to alternative-fuel vehicles by 2035. Scope 1 emissions are those created by company-owned vehicles and J.B. Hunt, as a transportation company with nearly 17,000 tractors, creates a lot of emissions to reduce.

J.B. Hunt is also trying to make a dent in its emissions by switching capacity to its intermodal division, which is much more efficient than trucking, Harper said. The company’s Marketplace for J.B. Hunt 360° logistics platform is designed to connect freight with haulers to reduce empty miles and wasted diesel.

“Being in the transportation business, our biggest hurdle is finding a replacement for fossil fuels,” Harper said. “[Scope 1 emissions] are by far our largest emissions, and that comes from our own diesel. We need an alternative to diesel.”

Electric vehicles, either battery or fuel cell, are promising. But the equipment costs three times that of diesel-powered, Harper said, and the range of an electric vehicle is a fraction of that of diesel-powered vehicles.

“You would have to have two or three trucks to do the work of one truck,” Harper said. “That ain’t going to make sense.”

That’s not to say Harper isn’t a believer. “We need to get that technology here sooner than later,” he said. “It still has a long ways to go. We need a commercially viable option. We would like it to be here now, but it’s not.”

Harper said an electric truck doesn’t have to get close to the 1,400-mile range of a diesel tractor. He said J.B. Hunt would love to have one that could cover 400 miles with the same tonnage capacity. The nation’s infrastructure would also have to be upgraded so tractors could recharge more easily. The trucks in the 2020 pilot could reach a charge of 80% in 90 minutes, the company said.

Harper said the company decided two years ago to research the ESG trend, and he led a 24-person committee that discovered it was important for J.B. Hunt to control its narrative about what it was doing and how well it was doing it.

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