How the transport industry is moving towards decarbonisation

The road haulage industry remains a major contributor to city air pollution, constituting one-fifth of the European Union’s greenhouse gas emissions. In the UK, the government’s 2022 transport and environment statistics reflect similar findings: “Transport produces about a quarter of the UK’s total emissions and remains the largest emitting sector in the UK. The majority (91%) of emissions from domestic transport is from road vehicles – mainly cars and taxis, which cause 52% of the domestic transport emissions, heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) (19% of the emissions), and vans (16%). While HGVs make up only 6% of road vehicle miles in the UK, this small percentage is responsible for 19% of transport emissions. This is disproportionately higher than the 52% transport emissions caused by cars, which make up 76% of road vehicle miles travelled.”

HGV emissions are, however, down 12% since 1990. And despite the many cost and profit pressures that road transport operators continue to face, the industry remains committed to reducing its carbon footprint and playing its part in the UK’s efforts to tackle climate change. Logistics UK’s Logistics Report 2022 showed that 87% of logistics firms are considering decarbonising their fleet.

Truck manufacturer DAF says that moving from diesel to zero-emission alternatives will certainly be a challenge over the next 10 years. But the cost of not moving is simply too great to ignore as it threatens our way of life, our livelihoods, the lives of our children and, ultimately, all life on earth.

At this stage, it remains to be seen which technology aimed at achieving the net zero emissions targets will prevail. But a report by clean transport campaign group Transport & Environment says that there is widespread agreement among European truck builders and industry stakeholders that battery electric trucks (BETs) will play a major role in decarbonising road freight.

Electric vehicles (EVs)
Truck manufacturers are already focusing on bringing battery-powered trucks to the mass market across all vehicle segments. Campeys of Selby has ordered one of the UK’s first 19-tonne battery-electric DAF LF trucks, with delivery expected in April this year. DAF is also starting production of two new electric truck models at its factory in Eindhoven, Netherlands. The first MAN eTrucks are to be manufactured in a small series at its headquarters in Munich, Germany, with delivery of the first ordered vehicles scheduled for the earlier part of 2024.

Why are EVs better?
While building electric vehicles is more carbon-intensive than diesel trucks and their energy source in operation still relies on fossil fuels, their lifetime footprint is lower. The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) compared the emissions of electric and diesel trucks over their whole life, including manufacturing, operation, and emissions from the fuel produced.

They found that while manufacturing battery-powered vehicles does generate more CO2 emissions than manufacturing internal combustion engines, what matters is emissions during operation, and this is where batteries perform better than diesel. The analysis showed that owing to their higher efficiency, EVs emit up to 63% fewer greenhouse gases than diesel, even when using electricity that still comes from fossil fuels.

And as renewable sources start to make electricity greener, EV emissions will reduce even further. Heavy goods vehicles powered by fully renewable energy would emit over 90% less CO2 than diesel HGVs, according to the study.

Emission reduction targets
The UK government has set 2040 as its date for ending sales of all non-zero emission HGVs, and 2035 for lighter HGVs (up to 26 tonnes). Just recently, the European Commission published its new targets for average reduction of CO2 emissions in trucks and buses compared to 2019 levels: 45% by 1 January 2030; 65% by 1 January 2035; and 90% by 1 January 2040 onwards. No target has been set for 100% emission reduction.

The Transport & Environment report says that “ambitious intermediate targets need to be set to transition the industry in the most cost-effective way to meet legally binding climate targets and carbon budgets.” To investigate this, they appointed carbon energy consultants Element Energy to carry out a feasibility study examining accelerated switching to battery electric trucks. The results of the first study phase, where the scenario was not dependent on public charging infrastructure, showed that with the right policies in place, potentially very quick switching to BETs is possible. The study considered various different operational profiles with optimal combinations of battery size, charging infrastructure at depots, as well as charging opportunities at pickup and delivery sites. The researchers analysed costs for each profile, studying a range of different HGV operations and duty cycles, to determine when BETs become more cost-effective than diesel.

The results revealed that 65-75% of the UK’s rigid HGV and 30-35% of articulated vehicles would be able to operate sustainably and productively as electric vehicles without having to rely on future charging infrastructure anywhere other than at their own depots. And it could be achieved this decade still, ahead of the government’s set dates of 2035 and 2040.

Tackling EV charging challenges
While DAF’s larger of their two new electric trucks has a 525 kW/h capacity and a claimed range of about 310 miles, EV range generally remains a concern. The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) published a white paper at the end of 2022, providing an overview of charging solutions for battery-electric trucks. The white paper states that the lack of robust charging infrastructure could impede jurisdictions’ ability to meet their zero-emission truck goals and that this barrier must be addressed.

Existing technology. Different wired stationary charging options are available to meet different BET needs, ranging from slow alternating current (AC) charging to fast and ultra-fast direct current (DC) charging. Locations typically vary. There is depot charging at an operator’s terminal for overnight charging, destination charging at retail locations, distribution centres, and multimodal terminals such as ports to be used while loading and offloading, and publicly accessible charging available day or night.

Alternatives to wired stationary charging are being tested to increase charging flexibility, and the white paper discusses the following emerging alternative charging solutions, along with their benefits and barriers:

Battery swapping. One option being explored to address charging and range challenges is battery swapping technology. A depleted battery can be quickly replaced with a fully charged one, allowing the vehicle to continue its journey without the need for a lengthy recharge.

  • Benefits: This technology could shorten recharge time significantly and could be an attractive option for truck owners who, from a financial point of view, don’t have the luxury to tolerate long charging times.
  • Barriers: The shape, size, and placement of batteries aren’t standardised and the capital cost of battery swapping stations is high. This means trucks that allow battery swapping can only use specific swapping stations.

In China, battery swapping is sometimes offered as battery-as-a-service (BaaS). Fleet owners buy and pay for an electric vehicle body (without batteries), which reduces the upfront purchasing cost, and battery swapping station operators provide fleet owners with access to fully charged batteries at a usage cost.

Overhead catenary charging. This technology allows trucks to charge while driving, using electricity that flows through a pantograph mounted on the roof to connect with an overhead contact line.

  • Benefits: Efficient energy supply through catenary wires while driving on main roads is combined with lower upfront costs due to smaller batteries required and reduced charging downtime.
  • Potential barriers: As this technology means that more public funds might be required to build overhead lines, there could be political and business objections. Also, to make this technology viable on a wide scale, international standards will be key for cross-border transport.

Wireless in-road charging. This technology uses magnetic coils embedded in the road surface to transfer electricity to receiving coils fitted to the electric vehicle, charging the truck while driving.

  • Benefits: The cost of purchasing an electric truck is lower because of the smaller battery size. It is a cut above overhead catenary charging as it can be used by trucks and cars.
  • There are several barriers to wireless in-road charging: Sending and receiving large amounts of energy while a vehicle is driving is complex, and technical standardisation will be necessary to ensure interoperability of vehicle makes and charging suppliers. Electrifying roads will be expensive, once again inviting political and business resistance as it will require public funds. Insufficient safety data on the effects of radiation from high-energy wireless charging on humans and animals is another major barrier. Lastly, tractor-trailers have limited space to install enough coils to receive sufficient energy to power trucks with large vehicle weight ratings.

Alternative fuels
One reliable and cost-effective clean alternative to diesel and EV is compressed natural gas (CNG). Biomethane (bio-CNG) is abundantly available as a mass-adoptable solution for transport operators who want to decarbonise their fleets. With electric trucks and charging infrastructure still in early days, natural gas is a viable alternative that has the ability to transform transport companies’ carbon footprints. While the benefits of CNG are widely endorsed, it isn’t without its downside.

CNG is safer and cleaner than diesel. Refuelling happens in a closed-loop system, and no gloves or personal protective equipment is required. In an interview with Torquing Trucks, Harry Campey of Campeys of Selby said he feels comfortable enough giving his IVECO bio-CNG trucks to different drivers if their planning requires it. He can show the driver a quick video of how to refuel, give them a map showing where the fuelling stations are, knowing that it’s safe, and they can be on their way.

Infrastructure is growing in the UK, with new sites opening every month, but range anxiety is still a challenge. Harry says, “Of course, if you break down, you can’t just call someone up to come and help you out with a jerry can. So, we understand the range anxiety that drivers could have, and we have to be selective with the drivers we ask to use these gas trucks. It’s important to make sure the drivers are comfortable and confident and want to use them.”

A potential kink in the EV road to be watched
Despite the apparent consensus that EVs are the way forward, the European Commission’s newly published proposals say that it will be for manufacturers to decide which technologies they use to achieve these targets, whether that is through electrification, hydrogen fuel cells, or hydrogen in internal combustion vehicles. One major concern is that the proposals seem to place the lion’s share of the responsibility on manufacturers, without setting targets for infrastructure provision to enable the transition. Setting up charging stations suitable for trucks’ needs will be a mammoth task, and properly aligned policies will be critical to achieve the targets. Another concern is that the proposals mean that resources will be diverted away from the research around much cleaner, net-zero electric technologies. According to Volvo Group CEO, Martin Lundstedt, the Euro 7 plans are a mistake and bound to impact the transition to zero-emission vehicles. He says the trucking industry must remain focused on the CO2 roadmap, which will also accelerate the reduction of nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions and particulate matter (PM).

The Road Haulage Association’s view
The Environment Campaign of the Road Haulage Association (RHA) supports the road transport sector with the knowledge required to make vehicles and technology investment decisions that are consistent with the net-zero targets defined by the government. The RHA supports the decarbonisation of heavy goods vehicles and welcomed last year’s announcement at COP26 on the future of diesel HGVs, as it starts providing the certainty the sector needs to plan vehicle replacement cycles. They have also welcomed the government’s investment in the zero-emission road freight trials, which will give industry the confidence it needs to start planning investments and allow government ministers to signal which technologies they are willing to back via future regulation.

In conclusion, the UK haulage industry is making significant progress towards decarbonisation. Electric, hybrid, and natural gas vehicles, efficiency improvements, infrastructure improvements, collaboration, and innovation all have critical roles in this transition. While there are still challenges to overcome, such as the high cost of electric vehicles and the need for more charging and gas fuelling infrastructure, the industry must remain ambitiously committed to reducing its impact on the environment.