How Do We Jump-Start Bus and Truck Electrification? A New Report Explores Options.

Pulling from interviews and existing research, a new report explores the major challenges of and potential policy solutions to medium- and heavy-duty vehicle electrification.


May 3, 2023

News Type

Press Release

💡 What’s the story? 

Despite making up five percent of the US auto fleet, medium- and heavy-duty vehicles like freight trucks and city buses produce a quarter of the nation’s transportation emissions. As the United States works to decarbonize the transportation sector, how can decisionmakers encourage the electrification of these varied and complicated fleets? 

A new report by scholars from Resources for the Future (RFF) digs into this question. Pulling from interviews and existing research, the authors show the major challenges of and potential policy solutions to medium- and heavy-duty vehicle electrification.  

Author Perspective

“The US Environmental Protection Agency and California recently put forward stringent new rule proposals that would require a major uptick in electrified trucks and buses. Electrifying these fleets certainly won’t be easy, but there are practical paths forward. It will take thoughtful policies that address the challenges faced by fleet owners, manufacturers, utilities companies, and ratepayers.”  

—Beia Spiller, Fellow and Director of RFF’s Transportation Program 

🚌 What are the major challenges of electrifying trucks and buses? 

There is a long way to go until electric medium- and heavy-duty vehicles are competitive with diesel-powered options. The report authors lay out six major challenges that will need to be addressed. 

  • Costs to fleets. Electric trucks and buses, charging station installation, and specialized workers are very expensive. To achieve widespread adoption across all vehicle classes and use cases, the total cost of ownership—from initial purchasing cost to operation—will need to come down. 
  • Logistics and operations. Electric trucks and buses must have comparable model options, range, recharge times, payloads, and maintenance needs to diesel vehicles.  
  • Manufacturing. Electric vehicle manufacturers are creating production tools and processes from the ground up, resulting in higher costs and fewer options than diesel alternatives. 
  • Infrastructure requirements. High charging demand could destabilize current electricity distribution systems. Upgrades to the transmission and distribution systems and generation capacity will be needed to support electric trucks and buses. 
  • Equity. Without a careful policy approach, small fleets may be slower to adopt these vehicles and are likely to face more challenges in doing so.  
  • Externalities. As the electric medium- and heavy-duty vehicle industry develops, there are still many questions about where benefits and costs will accrue. These unknowns could result in suboptimal investments. 

Author Perspective

“Energy use is a major challenge. A fleet of 51 heavy-duty trucks in California could consume as much electricity as an outdoor sports stadium during peak demand. Where will that energy come from? How will utilities build the proper infrastructure? Who will benefit most? We will have to answer these questions and more to make sure that solutions are cost-effective and equitable.”

—Nafisa Lohawala, Fellow

✒️ What are the policy options?  

For the total cost of ownership to be more favorable, decisionmakers must work to lower manufacturing and operating costs and maximize the benefits of electric trucks and buses. The authors go into detail on several policy goals and options. 

  • Lower upfront costs of adoption by reducing vehicle purchasing costs, engaging in public-private partnerships, and improving economies of scale.  
  • Manage operating costs by restructuring electricity tariffs, adopting managed charging, and promoting the installation of on-site solar and storage systems.  
  • Improve en-route charging options by investing in public charging stations and battery-swapping technology.  
  • Deal with environmental and market externalities by aligning incentives for fleets and manufacturers, building up renewable power sources, and subsidizing battery research and development. 
  • Increase adoption by small fleets by targeting subsidies to small fleets, improving small-fleet education and outreach, and subsidizing managed charging software for small fleets.  

 How would electric medium- and heavy-duty vehicles affect businesses and communities?
Truck and bus emissions disproportionately affect environmental justice communities, which tend to be closer to major roadways and the depots where vehicles are housed. Electrifying trucks and buses would create marked improvements for air quality and pollution levels in these places.  

Electrifying buses and trucks—which would require a substantial amount of energy to charge quickly—would likely require significant grid updates and investments. These build-outs could contribute to an increase in retail electricity costs, which would increase ratepayer bills. These build-outs would also take time, so an increase in demand from medium- and heavy-duty vehicles could reduce reliability if utility upgrades are not done first.  

🛣️ Where do we go from here?

The Inflation Reduction Act committed billions of dollars in funding for medium- and heavy-duty vehicle electrification. States and private companies are making strides to increase the number of electric trucks and buses on the road. In turn, some utilities have also started pilot projects to figure out how power demands can be met cost-effectively.  

As investments ramp up, there are still many uncertainties that will be important to address to promote efficient, effective, and equitable outcomes. The report poses some questions that should be addressed by further research, while noting that more study will bring both answers and new questions.  

📚 Where can I learn more?

For more, read the report, “Medium- and Heavy-Duty Vehicle Electrification: Challenges, Policy Solutions, and Open Research Questions,” by RFF Fellow Beia Spiller, Fellow Nafisa Lohawala, and Research Analyst Emma DeAngeli. 

For more commentary, read Spiller’s blog post, “Why Are Electric Truck Prices So High?” on the Resources website. 

Resources for the Future (RFF) is an independent, nonprofit research institution in Washington, DC. Its mission is to improve environmental, energy, and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement. RFF is committed to being the most widely trusted source of research insights and policy solutions leading to a healthy environment and a thriving economy.

Unless otherwise stated, the views expressed here are those of the individual authors and may differ from those of other RFF experts, its officers, or its directors. RFF does not take positions on specific legislative proposals.

For more information, please see our media resources page or contact Media Relations and Communications Specialist Annie McDarris.

Related People

Related Content