Logistics Sparking interest in electric trucks

Innovative projects across the globe show the drive towards carbon-free road freight is gathering momentum. But there are still challenges to overcome before electric trucks can truly disrupt the status quo.

Mercedes-Benz eActros (Photo: Daimler AG)

When Thomas Parker built the world’s first production electric car in 1884, he could hardly have imagined it would take more than a century for electrification to truly break through in the vehicle industry. As it transpired, advances in internal combustion engine technology soon after would make electric vehicles largely obsolete – until now.

The demand for greener mobility means electric and hybrid-electric cars have become an increasingly common sight on our roads. And as propulsion technology continues to advance, they are now being joined by larger electric vehicles.

Electric propulsion was a headline attraction at last year’s IAA Commercial Vehicles trade show, with many manufacturers showcasing new e-trucks and vans either in or close to production. Around the globe, companies are now testing or placing orders for electric trucks to help them transport goods across short and long distances.

Hermes leading the way

Already partnering on electric vans, in September, Hermes was named as the first of 20 test customers for the new Mercedes-Benz eActros, a 25-tonne, all-electric truck. For the next two years, Hermes will test it predominantly on a 50km route in central Germany.

“Electromobility is an essential component of our sustainability strategy,” says Oliver Lanka, Head of Central Procurement at Hermes Germany. “We have set ourselves the ambitious goal of making our deliveries in all urban centres in Germany emission-free by 2025. Alongside the use of battery-electric vans over the last mile, the gradual electrification of heavy-duty distribution and feeder transport is an important topic for us.”

Challenges still to overcome

The key word here is gradual. Electric motors offer undoubted advantages compared to combustion engines as a greener and significantly more energy efficient form of propulsion. However, when it comes to power per litre, conventional fuels still lead the way. That’s not so much of a problem for small vehicles operating across short distances in city centres, but for big, long-haul trucks carrying heavy payloads it’s a different story. Range and charge time impact performance, while the size of the battery packs needed reduces cargo capacity.

Cost also remains a factor: battery prices may be falling fast – they’ve roughly halved in the last 10 years – but combustion engines still compare favourably when it comes to total cost of ownership. It’s why an estimated 97% of heavy-duty trucks sold in Europe this year are diesel.

Cost parity approaching

But this is unlikely to last. Increasingly stringent fuel economy, emissions and noise targets are being set by regulators in major truck markets, with electrification likely to be the long-term solution. This will see a continued to effort to improve technology and infrastructure, boosting performance and driving down costs.

McKinsey believes that for light-duty regional hub-and-spoke delivery, total cost of ownership for electric vehicles can already reach parity with diesels today. For heavy-duty trucks, parity will arrive in 2030.

Hydrogen power

In addition to the battery-powered motors traditionally associated with electric vehicles, further solutions are also being developed. Hydrogen-powered fuel cells can also be used to drive electric motors, emitting just water vapour from the exhaust pipe. For long-haul trucks, they have the advantage of offering a driving range and refuelling time similar to conventional engines.

Ambitious US start-up Nikola claims to have received $12 billion worth of pre-orders for its hydrogen-fuelled trucks, while South Korea’s Hyundai recently announced it plans to sell 1,000 of its hydrogen trucks in Switzerland over the next five years. However, hydrogen is not as energy efficient as a battery-powered electric motor and it remains expensive to produce, store and convert to electricity. The refuelling infrastructure also requires significant expansion and investment.

Charge on the move

But what if electric vehicles could simply charge while driving? In April, the world’s first ‘electric road’ was opened near Stockholm, Sweden. Two kilometres of electric rails embedded in the eRoadArlanda transfer energy via a movable arm attached to the bottom of a vehicle, similar to a Scalextric track.

And Sweden is also pioneering another form of electric road: by installing overhead power lines above a two-kilometre stretch of the E16 motorway near the town of Gävle, special trucks can use a pantograph to connect to the electricity, much like trams and buses do in some cities. Similar trials are scheduled to begin in Germany in 2019.

In the short- to medium-term, electric trucks are more likely to be used on fixed routes, across shorter distances. They face the challenge of competing with internal combustion engine vehicles not just in cost, but also in operational flexibility. But as technology and infrastructure evolves, the opportunity to cut emissions, as well as potentially operating costs, is a powerful argument. The e-truck era is just beginning.

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