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There are now estimated to be 5.6 million electric cars on the road globally. That's about 1 in every 250. And it's a number that is rising rapidly year on year.
But while the world is turning electric — light commercial vehicles such as vans are increasingly popular for city and suburban logistics — long-haul e-trucks are still in limited production.
There are a few logical reasons for this. For logistics managers, it's a vicious circle. Trucks are heavy so require larger batteries, which require more power, which take longer to charge. And the simple fact is, there's still a lot more energy in a tank of diesel than a battery pack.
For truckers, this matters. If they're long-hauling across the country, they need to plan their rest stops to coincide with electric charging points. According to the European Automobile Manufacturers' Association, the infrastructure required for electric trucks is almost completely missing. And then there's the cost. With razor-thin margins, fleet owners are understandably reluctant to invest now in a technology that isn't quite viable at the moment. That cost, as we know, is coming down all the time while battery technology continues in leaps and bounds.
However, the pressure is on the industry to clean up its act. Trucks are responsible for about 5% of all CO2 emissions in Europe and by 2025 manufacturers are required to reduce CO2 emissions from new vehicles by 15%. By 2030 that figure rises to 30%. So, what is the future of electric trucks, and what are the alternatives?
A future powered by electric trucks isn't as far-off as we once thought. Advancements in battery technology and cost, as well as improvements in charging time and range, could see e-trucks taking to the road before the end of the decade. According to Forbes “the total cost of ownership for electric freight trucks could be 50% cheaper than for diesel trucks by 2030". The Forbes story goes on to report that battery prices have fallen by 85% in a decade, bringing the cost down to levels more comparable with internal combustion engine vehicles. Already, truck makers Tesla, Volvo and Scania have released details of production versions of long-haulers.
Electric might get all the headlines, but for long-haul travel, hydrogen is believed by the experts to be the most viable choice. Just like EVs, hydrogen vehicles produce zero emissions at the tailpipe. But whereas it can take up to several hours to charge an electric truck, a hydrogen vehicle can be replenished in a matter of minutes, just like a regular vehicle. Currently, Daimler is already testing its GenH2 hydrogen truck prototype, while start-up Nikola is hedging its bets with both an electric and hydrogen truck.
Solving range anxiety and charging in one go is the idea of e-highways. Like electric trains, these roads use overhead power lines that connect to trucks, giving them indefinite power. The concept is currently being tested by Siemens on very short sections of the German Autobahn. The technology and infrastructure company believes that this could save a typical truck €16,000 over 100,000km of driving and seven million tons of carbon dioxide per year if 30% of truck traffic on German highways were electrified with renewables.
Read more: Remote fleet management: what happens next?
Synthetic fuels are produced from renewable electricity to produce hydrogen, which is then mixed with carbon dioxide extracted from the air to make a hydrocarbon. The resulting fuel is a carbon-neutral fuel that works with existing, modified combustion engines. Currently, carmakers such as Porsche are creating e-fuels for classic and sports cars but the jury is out on whether or not these e-fuels are a viable option for trucks. Carlos Calvo Ambel, analysis and climate manager at T&E, told the website Transport & Environment: “To use massively inefficient e-fuels in cars and trucks in order to keep the combustion engine is wasteful when battery electric vehicles or even hydrogen in some trucks offer a path to decarbonization."