Analyses
20 fév 24

What’s the Future for Zero-Emission Trucks in Fleet Management?

A whole-system modelling approach from researchers in Ireland, emphasising the importance of intangible and real costs, highlights the uncertain future of zero-emission trucks. Their findings reflect the reality that hauliers across all weight categories face huge challenges right now, intensified by the need to decarbonise. 

Between 2000 and 2022, global tailpipe emissions from the road freight sector increased 55%. Despite making up less than 10% of vehicles on the road and 17% of total miles driven, freight transport is responsible for almost 40% of life-cycle Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. Due to the strong link between road freight and economic growth, activities in the sector are expected to double by 2050. The pressing need for decarbonisation in road freight transport is indisputable. However, the industry faces a barrage of challenges in doing so, including the high energy demand from heavy trucks, limited availability of low-emission fuels, and a dire lack of low-emission vehicles that are commercially ready. 

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Europe’s haulier sector is already under pressure. Rising costs are squeezing already tiny margins (averaging 2%), and the cost of living crisis means that demand for freight transport is lower, so competition is higher. Data released last week by accountancy firm Price Bailey revealed that 463 haulage companies have gone bankrupt in the UK alone over the past year. This is not a good time to be trialling new energies. 

How are electric truck manufacturers fairing?

However, the options are limited even for companies that can afford to ride out recessions and try out new power trains. A handful of start-up electric truck makers have come and gone in recent years. Despite strong financial backing enabling them to produce vehicles deemed excellent, the likes of Arrival and Volta Trucks haven’t been able to stay in business. 

Arrival, listed on Nasdaq in 2021 (at the time, the largest-ever listing for a British tech company), went into administration in January 2024. Sweden’s Volta Trucks went bankrupt at the end of 2023, blaming the demise of its battery manufacturing partner Proterra, and EV van maker Tevva, although still in business, failed a planned merger with an American company. There are many reasons for these failures, mainly their inability to scale manufacture and thus reduce costs. 

Meanwhile, incumbent OEMs with deeper pockets are readying their electric vans and trucks. These include Mercedes, Volvo and Stellantis, which owns Citroen, Vauxhall, Peugeot and Fiat. Then, there’s competition from China, which owns 77% of battery manufacturing globally. BYD overtook Tesla sales at the end of last year, while Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation is selling its Maxus electric van in Europe. 

Decarbonising Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGVs) is particularly complex and is a barrier to transition. Mercedes has launched the eActros range of electric trucks and secured an order for 300 for Europe from confectionery manufacturer Mars. 

The whole-system modelling approach

Research from University College Cork, funded by the Department of Transport and the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, proposes a whole-systems modelling approach considering intangible costs, i.e., indirect expenses not immediately or explicitly evident but that have a significant impact on the operation of freight transport, such as recharging time, cargo capacity and so on. 

The study found that electric trucks are the most cost-effective option for all weight categories, but hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are preferable for heavy trucks if intangible costs are included. The study also highlights the importance of early action to avoid carbon lock-in.

However, the study warns that a number of challenges need to be addressed before zero-emission trucks can become widespread in Europe. These include the high upfront cost of the vehicles, the lack of charging and hydrogen refuelling infrastructure, and the fact that batteries currently have a shorter range than diesel engines. 

How can we overcome the challenges to decarbonise haulage? 

A number of factors could help overcome these challenges, such as government incentives, advances in battery technology, and the development of a Europe-wide hydrogen refuelling infrastructure. Overall, the future of zero-emission trucks in Europe is uncertain, but there is potential for them to become a significant part of the transportation sector in the future, with certain implications:

  • Electric trucks are likely the most common type of zero-emission truck in Europe, but hydrogen fuel cell vehicles may be preferable for the heavy category.
  • Government incentives could help to overcome the high upfront cost of new powertrains.
  • The lack of charging and hydrogen refuelling infrastructure is another challenge, but developing this infrastructure is underway.
  • Advances in battery technology could make electric trucks more range-competitive with diesel engines.

The challenge in cutting emissions from HGVs stems from their high energy consumption and the limited availability of low-carbon alternatives in the short term. Additionally, the lengthy lifespan of HGVs complicates swift emissions reduction efforts. Neglecting to address emissions reduction in the road freight sector could jeopardise national carbon budgets. Delaying efforts to decarbonise could lead to faster depletion of the carbon budget by sectors with easier emission reduction pathways, leaving sectors like road freight with insufficient time to develop necessary infrastructure and investments for decarbonisation. This could result in missed emissions targets or make achieving carbon neutrality more challenging and costly.

Image: Shutterstock-1751931881 Pavel Chagochkin

Authored by: Alison Pittaway