Cargo trucks in a large parking lot
Trucks at the Port of Los Angeles in Los Angeles, California.Photograph: Allison Zaucha/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Truckers Are Caught on the Front Line of California’s EV Push

By 2024, trucks bought for use in the state’s ports and rail yards must be zero-emission. The struggle to electrify previews what must happen worldwide.

If you live in the US, the stuff you buy—that new dining room table, bag of rice, or pair of pants heading to your home right now—may experience the all-electric future of global transportation before you do.

Tens of millions of tons of goods move through California’s ports each year, proceeding from ship to port and beyond on hulking semitrucks. Forty percent of the nation’s containerized imports move through the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach alone, vital links in a global chain of commerce connecting factories all over the world to American doorsteps.

Yet a new rule passed by California’s air regulator last month demands major changes to that supply chain, in the name of saving Earth’s climate and the lungs of people who live close to ports. By 2035, every California drayage vehicle—large trucks that move goods between ports, rail yards, and distribution centers—must be a zero-emission vehicle. From next year on, any trucking or shipping company that acquires a new truck is required to buy an electric model powered by batteries or hydrogen fuel cells. 

The mandates at California's ports are just a preview of what must happen nation- and worldwide, environmental advocates say, if policymakers are to grapple seriously with the threats of climate change. California plans to ban sales of gas-powered cars to consumers by 2035. And shifting from diesel to electric-powered drayage trucks should also help clean the dirty air surrounding the state’s ports and rail yards, welcome news for the mostly communities of color that work and live in those areas and, as a result, suffer higher rates of cancer, heart disease, and asthma. By 2050, California’s government estimates, the regulations could help avoid some 5,500 heart- and lung-related deaths.

California’s new rule, part of a suite of state regulations aimed at freight, promises to accelerate a fledgling electric heavy truck industry, putting the heft of the world’s fifth largest economy—and some of the planet's most creative environmental regulators—behind companies that build trucks, batteries, and charging stations. Thirteen states have pledged to match or consider matching California’s clean truck policies.

Some on the front lines of the electrification mandate, including the small business owners who transport nearly a third of California’s containerized goods, say the regulations have moved too fast. “It’s the whole cart-before-the-horse thing,” says Matt Schrap, CEO of the Harbor Trucking Association, which represents freight industry companies working out of West Coast ports.

Even with generous state and federal funding and tax credits for owners that can cut the cost of expensive battery-powered or hydrogen trucks in half, owners say the vehicles are a financial stretch. There are few places to charge or refill them. 

“I’m not a hardcore diesel truck man. I’m not married to the idea of an internal combustion engine,” says David Gurrola Jr., an owner-operator who hauls mostly scrap metal and recycled paper between the Port of Long Beach and San Diego. “I just need a chance for the technology to catch up to the needs of the people.”

Just 87 zero-emission drayage trucks existed in California in the first half of 2022, according to data collected by the state, and they are expensive. Gurrola owns one diesel-powered truck, a 2012 FreightLiner Cascadia. An electric truck is nice to think about, and Gurrola says he recently enjoyed test-driving one at a trucking event. But owning one feels far off. “Right now, that truck expense doesn’t pencil out,” he says.

Adapting to California’s new rules could require major changes for Gurrola and others, including rerouting to limit battery-intensive highway driving, finding space to install charging stations, and leasing trucks instead of owning them. Some small California truck operators worry they’ll be forced to shut down or move out of state. 

California’s Air Resources Board has chosen Gurrola’s industry to be in the vanguard of its mandated transition to electric vehicles because it is low-hanging fruit, environmentally speaking. Many of the more than 25 zero-emission heavy-duty trucks available for purchase in the US still have limited ranges, less than 200 miles per charge. But the state’s 33,000 drayage trucks take much shorter trips than other freight-haulers, with about 80 percent of the trucks that visit California's seaports reporting trip distances under 60 miles, according to the state. The majority return to depots at the end of each shift, providing an opportunity for them to top up on electricity.

Some companies affected by the new rules say they’re bearing up okay. Rudy Diaz admits it readily—he got really lucky. His shipping company, Hight Logistics, was already a decade old in 2021 when he began speaking to Forum Mobility, a trucking-as-a-services firm that builds electric charging infrastructure and leases zero-emission vehicles to shipping, logistics, and trucking companies. When the company’s representatives opened up the breaker box attached to his warehouse, Diaz remembers hearing the exclamation, “Whoa, we hit gold.”

Diaz had on his rented land a connection beefy enough to power three charging stations, which meant he didn’t have to wait months or years for the local utility to add new capacity. His landlord was comfortable with installing the stations and also agreed to extend the lease by 10 years, reassuring Diaz it wasn’t risky to invest in upgrades.

Since signing on with Forum, Diaz has upended the way Hight does business. He used to work with independent drivers, who mostly drove their own diesel trucks. Now, 35 employees (plus a few remaining contractors) drive five zero-emissions trucks leased from and maintained by Forum. The startup also handles vehicle maintenance—an intimidating new world for owners accustomed to diesel engines—and Diaz’s applications for state and federal incentive programs, which bring down the sticker prices of the trucks and the power stations that charge them. “That, to me, is the most challenging as a business owner,” he says. 

Many shippers and trucking companies are not like Hight Logistics and don’t have facilities readily upgraded with charging stations. Right now, California has only a handful of public charging stations dedicated to medium- and heavy-duty trucks. 

Forum, which leases trucks to Hight, is one among a handful of startups offering to help trucking companies comply with the approaching zero-emission rules. The startup has raised millions in funding from the investing arm of the real estate company CBRE and Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund. Others include the startups WattEV and Zeem. Some have built charging stations around ports and rail yards; others lease out trucks for those unfamiliar with zero-emissions vehicles or unable to pay for them outright.

Hight Logistics’ fleet includes a Class 8 electric semitruck from the manufacturer Kenworth—and a charger to keep it juiced up.

Courtesy of Adam Browning

The startups and California have a lot of work ahead. The state energy commission has estimated it will need 157,000 more chargers dedicated to medium- and heavy-duty trucks by 2030—a target that would require building more than 450 per week. “The state needs to install a biblical amount of infrastructure,” says Adam Browning, the executive vice president of policy at Forum. “We need a Manhattan Project of charging.”

California has earmarked $1.7 billion for medium- and heavy-duty truck charging infrastructure between 2022 and 2026, and business owners can take advantage of state and federal incentives to offset the price of trucks and charging infrastructure. But trucking industry insiders say logistical challenges—like long wait times to extend power to new charging stations, and charger component shortages—pose huge challenges.

“There’s always a struggle,” says Salim Youssefzadeh, CEO of WattEV, which opened a 26-truck charging station at the Port of Long Beach earlier this month. 

The new California rules allow trucking companies a one-year extension on the mandate if they can show that charging infrastructure or vehicle production delays are responsible for their lack of compliance, though the details of the exception haven’t been hammered out. 

Daimler Truck, one of the world’s largest truck makers, used a conference on clean transportation this month to announce a $650 million joint venture with the utility NextEra Energy Resources and investment firm BlackRock, dedicated to building freight charging infrastructure. But at the same event, Daimler Truck president and CEO John O’Leary warned that the industry might not be ready for the electrification challenges to come. “We cannot operate under the delusion that zero-emission technology for this industry is ready to completely supplant diesel today, or that it will be ready to do so next year, or even five years from now,” he said. 

Schrap, the Harbor Trucking Association leader, says his members aren’t against electrification but that the road ahead looks bumpy. “We’re not saying we can’t get there,” he says. California’s new rules will likely end one way, he says: “A lawsuit.”