Reducing Santa’s Carbon Footprint with Medium-Duty Electric Trucks

Online shopping has become a big part of the holiday season in the United States and is continuing to grow; on Black Friday this year, online sales reached a record $6.22 billion, an increase of 23.6 percent over the previous year. Cyber Monday sales hit $7.9 billion, a 19 percent increase from 2017. All in all, online sales are expected to account for 57 percent of purchases this holiday season. This increase makes sense. There are a lot of benefits to online shopping: you can shop for the best deal in your pajamas and have whatever you buy delivered straight to your door. On top of that, online shopping typically has a smaller carbon footprint than traditional shopping at “brick and mortar” stores by, for example, shipping only what is needed rather than a surplus of inventory to have on hand. (But that’s not true when you choose free, two-day shipping or make a lot of returns.)

However, more online shopping ultimately means more shipping of packages, and transporting goods has an impact on our climate. The items we purchase online typically make the “last mile” journey from the warehouse to our homes via medium-duty delivery trucks, like the UPS and FedEx trucks you see in your neighborhood. But in addition to packages and presents, these trucks bring increased congestion, noise, and emissions. Transportation produces 27 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions, and almost one-quarter of that footprint comes from the medium- and heavy-duty trucks that help deliver the goods we buy online.

The good news is that there is a way to help reduce Santa’s carbon footprint during the holidays (and throughout the year) with electric delivery trucks. Innovation and advances in commercial battery electric vehicles (CBEVs) are producing technologies and practices that could bring decisive and potentially disruptive opportunities across the transportation industry. Fully electric trucks are reaching wider-scale consideration as truck, engine, charger, and other component makers are developing the systems that will support such vehicles. CBEVs come with many benefits, like a simpler design that means less maintenance and fewer parts that can break, plus reduced greenhouse gas emissions compared to diesel and even natural gas vehicles, which can help fleets achieve their sustainability goals. These vehicles come with some challenges as well, the biggest of which seems to be the infrastructure for charging. It’s not an issue to find fueling stations for diesel or gasoline trucks, but fleets that are considering electric vehicles need to make sure there’s a place to recharge—an important factor to consider.

Electrifying the Last Mile

Together with the North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE), Rocky Mountain Institute is working to help fleet owners understand the factors that influence whether or not electric trucks make sense for a particular application. Because medium-duty trucks (Classes 3–6) in the United States typically operate from fixed starting and return locations, they are a great application for electric vehicles in goods movement. These trucks often return “home” each night, where they can be charged at cost-effective rates and with fewer infrastructure demands. In addition, medium-duty trucks are usually located in urban areas with predictable daily mileage and stop-and-go driving patterns that allow them to benefit from regenerative braking technology, thereby extending the range of their onboard batteries.

Electric vehicles currently make up only about 1 percent of all vehicles, and a very small number of EVs are being used to make deliveries and pickups across a number of industries and regions. But as vehicle manufacturers get more electric trucks into the marketplace, more will be purchased and used as replacements for older diesel or gasoline vehicles. Fleets in California and other locations with strong directives to move toward low- and zero-emission vehicles will see accelerated adoption.

As new technologies, innovative business models, and creative financing options reach the market, fleets and manufacturers need information on the benefits, challenges, and risks so that everyone can benefit in this evolving landscape. To that end, NACFE is in the process of completing a series of Future Technology Guidance Reports to provide perspective, insights, and resources on the complex topic of the viability of commercial battery electric vehicles. The first two reports in the series were released in 2018 and focused on key arguments for and against electric trucks and the total cost of ownership for medium-duty electric vehicles. NACFE’s third electric truck Guidance Report, planned for spring 2019, will focus on charging infrastructure for electric trucks in the United States.

A Cleaner, Quieter Sleigh for Santa

Electric trucks and buses are expected to become cost-competitive by 2030. While cost is an important factor in adoption, there are a number of elements that will influence where and how quickly electric vehicles become common, such as congestion, air pollution, and public health. These factors will drive adoption at different rates in different regions, but the bottom line is these vehicles are not a fad; they are here as a real solution for specific applications. Because the vast majority of trips by delivery vehicles are within a 100-mile range, electric trucks are an incredibly viable option for delivering holiday packages. In fact, both UPS and FedEx have recently committed to adding hundreds of electric vehicles to their delivery fleets.

There are rumors that Santa is considering an electric sleigh as well, due to the many benefits battery electric vehicles provide in addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Because they are quieter than traditional trucks, CBEVs can help Santa make deliveries at night in nearly complete silence. Some of these new electric vehicles have floors that are closer to the ground so Santa and his elves are less likely to encounter injuries delivering packages, especially on icy and snow-covered rooftops. And, because of the zero emissions factor of electric trucks, there’s no smog to clog the reindeer’s lungs or dirty up the snow.

The rise of online purchases (and returns) has increased last mile delivery volume and demand for medium-duty trucks. As e-commerce continues to grow, the supply chain will continue to shift, and we will see an increase in Class 3–6 vehicles. On top of that, evolving emission regulations have created demand for zero- and near zero-emission vehicles, and fuel prices can be volatile as well. For all of these reasons, electrifying his sleigh is a great choice for Santa, and for anyone in the delivery business with return-to-base operations that permit economical overnight charging.