Electric trucks: The future?

Rolf Bax

Rolf Bax

May 26, 2020 - 10:04

Along with the rest of the automotive sector, the medium and heavy-duty truck market is evolving. Governments around the world, recognising the potentially catastrophic repercussions of unfettered climate change and witnessing the detrimental impact on human health from vehicle exhaust pollutant emissions in urban environments, are taking decisive action, that will, in the coming decades, drive vehicle manufacturers to zero on-road exhaust emission powertrain solutions. Consequently, the days of the fossil fuel powered combustion engine are numbered.

Despite medium and heavy duty trucks representing only 9% of the global vehicle market, large inefficient diesel truck engines combined with high average annual mileage means that the truck sector contributes 39% of the transport sectors' greenhouse gas emissions, which equates to about 5% of all global fossil fuel derived CO2 emission. It is this disproportionate contribution to emissions which makes trucks a target for governments. If the global community is going to meet its targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit the impact of climate change then it is clear that a rapid decarbonisation of the truck sector must be a priority. 

CO2 reduction main driver for Electric trucks

Whilst CO2 emission has arguably been the main force driving move to zero on-road emission freight, an ever-increasing body of evidence is also highlighting the damage that poor air quality is having on populations which are frequently exposed to harmful levels of air pollution. In urban environments, that are in close proximity to congested road infrastructure, transport related emissions of, in particular, nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter (PM) have been directly linked to increased morbidity and mortality. A 2019 report by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) linked vehicle emissions to 385,000 premature deaths worldwide in 2015, with the cost of the health impacts from vehicle emissions calculated at approximately $1 trillion USD. 

If efforts to encourage a significant reduction in average truck emissions prove ineffective in the near term, the emissions problem will be exacerbated by the expected growth in freight demand. Medium and heavy-duty trucks are an integral part of the freight transport industry, which is the backbone of major economies, as the movement of goods keeping business running. The rise of online shopping, the trend of increasing urbanisation and reducing personal car ownership are projected to increase the demand for home delivery and therefore increase the demand for freight and the commercial vehicles that facilitate that movement of goods. 

Vehicle electrification offers a solution which effectively eliminates on-road exhaust emission and passes the pressure of decarbonisation on to electricity generation. Rather than monitoring the emission of millions of vehicles, the task then becomes one of governments managing the emission of a limited number of large power stations in combination with renewable sources, to reduce the carbon intensity of supplied electricity.s

All truck brands working hard on electric

A majority of manufactures, including Tesla, Daimler, VW and Volvo are investing heavily in all-electric trucks, which appear to be winning the total cost of ownership battle against diesel by the end of the 2020s. A smaller minority, Toyota, Hyundai, and Nikola, have chosen to focus their efforts on fuel cell EV as the powertrain of the future, and despite issues with the efficiency of hydrogen as a fuel, FCEV remains in the conversation as a technology for long haul trucking applications, where a greater range is required, though the viability of this technology is dependent on the production cheap low carbon hydrogen. Chinese manufacturers are starting to produce electric trucks, leveraging their experience in electric buses and battery production. Given the Chinese governments strong support for the entire EV industry it likely that this is where the most significant deployment of EV trucks will be seen in the near future.

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