More than 12 million medium- and heavy-duty vehicles burn nearly 50 billion gallons of gasoline and diesel traveling 300 billion miles throughout the United States each year. These medium- and heavy-duty vehicles, or MHDVs, include trucks, vans, and other Class 2B and heavier vehicles. These vehicles depend on foreign-sourced fossil fuels that are susceptible to supply chain disruptions and price shocks, and MHDV pollution kills thousands of Americans each year. In contrast, electrifying the United States’ MHDV fleets will create hundreds of thousands of good-paying domestic jobs, generate billions of dollars in savings, boost public health, and fight climate change. Accelerating the electrification of these vehicles should therefore be a top priority for commercial fleet managers and federal, state, and local government officials.
Despite comprising a mere 4% of vehicles on the road, MHDVs are responsible for 10% of all vehicle miles traveled and, astonishingly, 24.4% of all transportation-sector emissions. In addition to exacerbating climate change, MDHVs harm public health, especially in frontline communities located along transportation corridors and urban centers. The International Council on Clean Transportation estimates that U.S. transportation sector pollution causes 22,000 premature deaths annually—in addition to triggering chronic respiratory and autoimmune health impairments, which collectively cause hundreds of thousands of hospital visits and sick days each year. Electrifying these polluting vehicles is a public health imperative.
Electrifying the MHDV sector will generate unprecedented economic benefits, too. MHDV electrification is projected to create more than 154,000 U.S. manufacturing jobs, and building and installing the charging infrastructure necessary to power these vehicles could employ another 29,000 Americans. Existing jobs in the trucking industry will likely also be improved by MHDV electrification: the industry is experiencing unprecedented workforce shortages, and many long-term truck drivers cite stress as a reason for quitting. Electric vehicle drivers, however, consistently report higher satisfaction with their driving experiences than internal combustion engine vehicle drivers do—in part because electric vehicle drivers avoid breathing in as much diesel exhaust. As a result, electrifying MHDVs may reduce the toll on truck drivers’ health and increase driver retention.
Electrifying MDHV fleets will also lower costs for fleet operators. While most electric MHDVs currently have higher sticker prices than their gas-powered counterparts, electric MHDVs are far cheaper to operate, fuel, and maintain over time. Not only is electricity cheaper than gasoline and diesel, but electric vehicles also have fewer moving—and breakable—parts than gas-powered vehicles do, driving down electric vehicles’ total cost of ownership. For example, a fleet operator who switches from diesel to electric buses could save more than half a million dollars in lifetime costs for each vehicle. Relatedly, as more fleet operators switch to electric MHDVs and as battery technologies become cheaper, MHDV manufacturers will achieve economies of scale, which—along with government action—will help drive down electric MHDVs’ sticker prices.
U.S. businesses and state governments are already experiencing the benefits of MHDV electrification. Companies like UPS, FedEx, Amazon, Hertz, and Frito-Lay have taken concrete steps to electrify their commercial fleets—collectively, these companies have plans to acquire hundreds of thousands of electric MHDVs in the coming years. They frequently cite their climate commitments and lifetime cost savings as their reasons for transitioning their fleets.
In addition, several states are implementing programs to accelerate MDHV fleet electrification. New York is a quintessential example: it is in the process of adopting a policy modeled on California’s Advanced Clean Trucks Rule that will annually generate $270 million in fuel and maintenance savings, reduce greenhouse gas pollution by 50 million metric tons, and prevent 355,000 respiratory illnesses and 540 premature deaths.
The federal government is also preparing to electrify the federal fleet. President Biden’s recent executive order will expedite this transition by requiring that all federal fleet vehicles—such as those in the United States Postal Service (USPS), General Services Administration (GSA), and Department of Defense (DoD)—be electrified by 2030. Congress is considering measures to fund this effort through its proposed climate legislation, and effecting a successful transition will save Americans money. Electrifying the USPS, for example, could generate $4.3 billion in savings by 2030; the savings potential in this case is particularly high because of USPS delivery vehicles’ frequent stops, regular idling, fixed routes, short daily driving range, and convenient parking hubs. Similarly, electrifying the GSA fleet would both produce taxpayer savings and increase the prevalence of electric MDHVs in the used market because the GSA regularly sells its retired vehicles to the public. Finally, the DoD can foster more climate-resilient base operations by electrifying its non-tactical MDHVs.
Of course, some obstacles to rapid MHDV electrification remain. Among the most salient of these include the initial upfront cost of purchasing the vehicles, the cost of installing charging infrastructure, the range limits of currently-available models, and perceived adverse impacts on the electrical grid due to increased electricity demand.
Government investment and coordination can overcome these barriers, and many provisions in President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda were designed to mitigate these challenges. As Congress continues to negotiate a final climate package, policymakers should continue to advance legislation that will provide tax incentives to commercial entities for capital-intensive electric MDHVs and should expand the alternative fuel tax credit to reduce the cost of charging infrastructure. These tax incentives will lower the upfront cost of MHDV fleet electrification and further strengthen the financial case for fleet operators to transition their fleets. Finally, federal agencies should provide greater regulatory certainty to—and foster increased coordination among—fleet operators, utilities, charging companies, and communities to ensure that electric MHDV fleet deployment and electrical grid upgrades proceed efficiently.
MHDV electrification presents a unique opportunity to catalyze a vast economic boom and generate substantial public health and environmental benefits. Taking action to electrify the United States’ MHDV fleets will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, generate unprecedented cost savings for fleet operators and taxpayers, save thousands of lives, and avoid millions of metric tons of pollution. For these reasons, policymakers must prioritize legislation and regulations to accelerate MHDV fleet electrification, and fleet operators should move rapidly to electrify their fleets.