• Electrification could significantly help the global road freight transportation sector lower its carbon emissions;
  • Everything from battery weight and performance to the infrastructure supporting charging points and how the sector is regulated must be considered to aid the transition to electric transport, trucks and long-range heavy-duty vehicles;
  • Progress is underway: the European Automobile Manufacturers Association expects 200,000 electric trucks to be on the road by 2030.

Global road freight transportation accounts for 2.9 gigatonnes a year of tailpipe CO2 emissions. Electrification is increasingly considered to be a viable decarbonization option that will benefit from the innovations taking place in electric passenger vehicle transport. As a recent discussion led by the Pentalateral forum highlights, there are both emerging opportunities and challenges when it comes to the electrification of vehicles.

Car battery innovations pulling the freight segment

Electromobility is central to the transition to electric energy and lowering emissions. According to IRENA estimates, electric cars will account for around 5% of global car sales in 2020. Some countries are already pulling ahead: Norway, for instance, saw 62% of new car sales go electric in September 2020.

Electric vehicles market growth in a Paris Agreement aligned scenario – more than 1.1 billion EVs fuelled by renewable electricity by 2050
Electric vehicles market growth in a Paris Agreement-aligned scenario – more than 1.1 billion EVs fuelled by renewable electricity by 2050
Image: IRENA (2020), Global Renewables Outlook: Energy transformation 2050

In order to expedite the transition elsewhere, a combination of innovations is needed involving battery manufacturing, clean electricity supply, smart and fast charging, charge point availability and high-performance batteries, all supported by the right policy frameworks and market incentives.

Innovation and technological progress is driving this transition and batteries play a critical role. In the last 10 years, the cost of battery packs has declined by 95% to $122/kWh and this trend will continue. Those with access to the best batteries will dominate the future car industry. Research is focused on weight reduction but fast-charging performance, strategic materials, battery life, fire risk and manufacturing cost must also be considered. Innovation continues apace and policy ambitions are growing worldwide.

Today’s best-performing battery-powered electric cars can drive 650 kilometres under testing conditions, with the battery accounting for 27% of the car’s weight. The best-in-class battery packs reach close to 200 Wh/kg (watt-hour per kilogram) and there is room to double or triple that for longer driving ranges and new applications.

Markets are increasingly electrified

Buses, garbage trucks, delivery vans, and mining vehicles are going electric on a significant scale. These account for around a third of commercial vehicle fuel use, while long-range heavy-duty vehicles (HDV) make up the remaining two thirds. For trucks, the payload is a critical component and regulations limit the total vehicle weight. Today’s diesel trucks’ kerb weight is about a third of a vehicle’s maximum loaded weight. A few years ago, the idea of an electric truck seemed far-fetched but this is changing owing to battery innovations.

In Europe, 50-60% of freight is transported less than 500 kilometres. A battery for such a range would reduce the payload by around 15%, but an extra two tonnes of weight allowance for electric trucks is being discussed. Battery-powered electric trucks for sale today typically have a 150-kilometre to 200-kilometre range. Further improvement is needed and many OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) are positioning themselves for the transition.

The European Automobile Manufacturers Association (ACEA), for example, expects 200,000 electric trucks to be on the road by 2030, around 4% of the total fleet. California also has ambitious plans for electrification of its freight fleet and across the US 54,000 heavy-duty electric trucks are expected on the road by 2025. Most electric trucks can be found in China, a leader in segments such as electric garbage collection trucks. Chinese manufacturer BYD will soon replace 15,000 internal combustion engine trucks used in Shenzhen with electric versions. This follows the introduction of 60,000 electric light-trucks and vans over the past three years. Approximately 35% of Shenzhen’s total fleet of urban delivery vehicles is already electric.

Emission reduction measure to decarbonize the road freight sector by 2050 – direct use of electricity may account for almost half of the emission reductions
Emission reduction measure to decarbonize the road freight sector by 2050 – direct use of electricity may account for almost half of the emission reductions
Image: Source: IRENA (2020), Reaching zero with renewables

Truck fleet owners getting onboard

The business model for delivery vans and trucks is based on the volume of cargo, which means the weight of batteries is not an issue. Stricter urban air quality requirements are instead an important driver in this segment. DPD Switzerland, for example, has stressed the fact that electric vehicle solutions are available today, as opposed to hydrogen-based solutions; while DHL has highlighted the importance of truck-charging corridors and clusters to jumpstart the transition.

HDV charging will differ from electric passenger cars in some aspects. However, the experience with electric-buses in an increasing number of cities is now informing the HDV market, for example, in terms of charging approaches and the use of digitalization and Internet of Things solutions that facilitate systems integration.

Regulations and policies paving the way

Regulation has a critical role to play in providing a stable investment environment for the rollout of electric HDVs and the necessary charging infrastructure. In Europe, Regulation (EU) 2019/1242 sets CO2 emission standards for HDVs and states that from 2025, manufacturers will face increasingly strict CO2 targets and truck manufacturers are reacting. OEMs including Daimler Trucks, the world’s largest truck manufacturer, will sell only zero-emission vehicles by 2039. Other major truck makers are also making the shift to electric vehicle production, like Volvo Trucks, Renault Trucks and MAN, as well as new entrants such as Tesla and Nikola.

The revisions of European regulations, including the Batteries Directive (BD), will facilitate rapid deployment of charging infrastructure and enabling technologies. Charging infrastructure is also one of the seven lighthouse projects in the European green recovery plan.

Other regions showing important activity are California and other parts of the US, where we see the California ACT (advanced Clean Trucks Rule), the drive to zero initiative and ongoing work to promote global charging standards and technologies for hastened deployment and reduced cost. International collaboration may speed up the adoption of common standards.

Smart charging for sector coupling

The integration of HDV into electricity systems deserves more attention. There are several charging technologies being tested for e-HDV, with capacities ranging from 250-900 kilowatts and up to 3 megawatts for future charging points. A highway charging hub may require tens of megawatts. An e-HDV smart charging approach to manage peak load may require a combination of stationary buffer batteries, on-site renewable electricity generation and digitized charging points based on electricity system needs. Integrated planning involving fleet and charge point owners as well as utilities is needed, as potential grid reinforcements could take up to three years.

In conclusion, the commercial vehicle segment is transforming. Battery-electric power is a new entrant vying with hydrogen, biomethane and other biofuels for pole position in the race to low carbon for the heavy-duty vehicles industry.