Trucking Executive David Parker Doesn't See Battery-Powered, Autonomous Trucks Any Time Soon

  • Friday, June 14, 2024
  • Hannah Campbell
David Parker
David Parker

Covenant Logistics CEO David Parker told the Rotary Club of Chattanooga that battery-powered trucking and autonomous trucking are both far from reality.

He said the money, infrastructure and technology that will bring that future to trucking won’t exist for many years.

Mr. Parker told the crowd that air carriers can already fly a route with no pilot. But nothing compares with meeting the pilot, preferably gray-haired, he said, when embarking on his flight.

“Is somebody in that truck?” he asked, looking up as if at a truck on the road. “I mean that goes a long way,” he said.

Basic infrastructure and expensive cargo insurance prevent autonomous trucking, he said.

“I don’t think that it will ever happen in my career,” he said. “You’re not going to be able to get to the cities that are off the beaten pathway.” Even when autonomous trucks can travel between big cities, they can’t make the seven run-of-the-mill drops within the city that today’s freight can, he said.

Autonomous trucks are not fine-tuned enough, either, to protect a load of iPhones, for example, he said. One indelicate, computerized stop might destroy the cargo, and insurance for that is cost-prohibitive, he said.

Mr. Parker deemed “absolutely unrealistic” an Environmental Protection Agency executive order which requires companies to achieve 100 percent carbon pollution-free electricity on a net annual basis by 2030.

“You cannot achieve it,” he said. “It drives me crazy.”

“We’re in the process of making a mess out of it,” he said.

Mr. Parker said that charging just 11 electric trucks would shut down Lookout Valley’s power grid. The grid would need $370 million in updates for Covenant to convert to electric, he said.

The speaker also said that Covenant does not have any electric trucks yet because they cost $450,000 each.

“I haven’t found a customer yet that’s willing to pay it,” he said.

This idealistic battery race will drive up inflation, he said, a topic of interest at a meeting he attended last week with Donald Trump and about 10 trucking industry leaders. The group studied inflation and the economy through the trucking lens.

“We are a great forerunner of what is happening because we haul it,” Mr. Parker said.

He said trucks haul 75 percent of all goods.

“If you wear it, we brought it. If you eat it, we brought it,” he said.

The pandemic brought trucking to the forefront of the public mind, Mr. Parker said. He described driving over a Chattanooga bridge on March 16, 2020, and seeing no cars, only trucks.

“The public realized for the first time that we do something,” he said.

Mr. Parker said a 53-foot tractor trailer requires a 10,000-pound battery that must be charged every 150 to 300 miles, at three to four hours for a full charge. The battery’s weight eats into a customer’s cargo limits. To outfit the country with charging stations, 250 would have to be built every day for the next five and a half years, adding to the current tally of eight, he said.

Instead, he said, focus on renewable diesel, renewable natural gas and renewable hydrogen.

With renewable diesel, he said, his fuel cost would remain the same as it is today, which is 20 percent the cost of battery power, and would bring trucking to 80 percent of the EPA’s “completely unrealistic” goal.

He chastised the EPA for taking orders from California, not the other way around. Now 10 states are set to adopt “absolutely unrealistic” greenhouse gas regulations which are not based on on-the-ground data, he said.

“The stupidity... and you and I have to pay for it,” he said. He criticized California legislation which will in 2027 ban all but electric trucks over state borders, and he criticized drilling for battery metals in China instead of in the United States.

“They won’t let us drill it, but they’ll let China, because that’s ‘not pollution,’” he said.

Though he said California is a huge Covenant customer, he guessed, “They may finally fall off the face of the earth.”

Mr. Parker told the crowd he had wanted to work in trucking since his first job at 17 years old.

“Don’t give up on your kids who say ‘college isn’t for me,’ because it wasn’t for me,” he said. Mr. Parker said that, while he didn’t like finance, banks or truck maintenance, he did like sales and freight. He started Covenant Trucking in 1986 and made $7 million in revenue the first year.

Today Covenant reports $1.1 billion in annual revenue and employs 5,000 people, 1,000 in Chattanooga. Mr. Parker said Chattanooga, or Freight Alley, sees as much trucking as Chicago does.

“Chattanooga has been good to transportation, and transportation has been good to Chattanooga,” he said. And it’s more than its location.

“It’s home,” he said.

“It’s home,” he said.

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