According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average price of diesel fuel was around $1.12 per gallon in 1994. In October 2004, the average exceeded $2 per gallon for the first time, and exactly a year later, it was over $3 a gallon. In April 2008, the average diesel fuel price in the United States was $4.08 per gallon, a watershed moment for the trucking industry. Between 2008 and February 2022, diesel only exceeded $4 per gallon 17 times.
With the good old days of $4 diesel behind us (by many months!), the ground for electric trucks has never been more fertile as efforts to reduce dependence on fossil fuels show no signs of abating. Purchase subsidies, tax credits and other subsidies are readily available for fleets that wish to unplug from diesel and go all-electric.
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I recently had the opportunity to get a first-hand look at a Class 8 electric tractor, and being the tire nerd that I am, I went straight to the tires. This truck was equipped with 315/80R22.5 dual drive tires on 9-inch aluminum wheels on both axles. I was surprised to learn that the front tandem, normally the trailing axle, was the drive axle and the rear axle was not connected to the drive train at all. Another surprise was the use of wing bolts to attach the wheels to the hub. Apparently, the combination of weight and torque was just too much for the standard hub-driven studs and nuts, so an entirely new wheel mounting system was needed. As if that weren’t enough, the process of lifting and securing the truck can result in a six-figure repair if the drive axle is damaged.
To be fair, this is an example, so it’s not a reflection on the whole electric truck market. However, this raises a few questions that need to be answered by fleets considering the possibility of plugging into the concept of replacing diesel fuel with electricity.
Let’s start with the tires. Direct drive has already been shown to have a negative effect on the tread life of an electric passenger vehicle. Aggressive acceleration and braking further shortens tire life. Similar results should be expected for drive tires when all torque is concentrated on one axle, making tire rotation for tandem tractors a key element in controlling tire costs.
On a standard diesel truck with tandem drive axles, turning is a long and laborious process. For the electric truck I saw, this process will take even longer with extra effort to line up the tire and wheel assemblies so the lug bolts can be installed. Wheel dollies and alignment pins will be needed for all types of tire service on this particular truck.
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More importantly, the process of lifting and securing the truck will require additional equipment and technician training. The manufacturer has included a designated lifting point, but most existing jacks will not reach it. Although easy to identify, there are no bearing points on the drive axle, so the job may need to be done without using a jack stand. The only safety hazards when lifting and supporting the electric truck I’ve seen are enough to keep tire guys like me awake at night. Add in the six-figure repair if the drive axle is damaged with no place to position a jack stand, and it’s a nightmare in its own right.
Nothing can stop the electrification of the trucking industry. I can see where this could work in areas where emissions are a major factor and can even lead to lower operating costs in the right applications. What I don’t see is how this is going to affect the life and maintenance requirements of the tires and wheels. From what I’ve read and seen anecdotally, I’m pretty confident that tire and wheel costs on electric trucks will be higher than their diesel counterparts, so maintenance will be a premium.
We are still a long way from replacing the diesel fleet with electric ones. Issues such as ensuring an available and stable power supply, reducing charging times and increasing range are well ahead of tires and wheels. It is impossible to predict the impact of electric trucks on the transportation industry. Tires and wheels are just another area where fleets and service providers will have to adapt as major changes are on the horizon and the stakes will rise.
Kevin Rohlwing is senior vice president of training for the Tire Industry Association. He has over 39 years of experience in the tire industry and has created programs to help train over 180,000 technicians.