In the , we saw the immense challenge posed by the decarbonization of freight transport. It would appear that “zero emission” technologies need a breakthrough to counter the complete dominance of combustion and diesel engines. However, the transition looks like being long and costly…
Electric is struggling to gain traction…
Especially relevant in France where electricity generation is largely decarbonized, battery electric vehicles are currently the best “zero emission” option (if one excludes the battery production and recycling problem…). But let us be clear: the electric share of the heavy goods vehicle fleet is currently insignificant, even if one includes hybrid solutions.
The much-publicized take-off announced by the media and manufacturers it is absolutely not evident in the figures. Over the past 14 months (December 2019-January 2021) only 280 electric and hybrid HGVs have been sold in France (source OIE / AAA data). 20 units a month! The Covid-19 crisis certainly has not helped, but at this rate it will take 30 or 40 years for electric drives to even start having an impact on the sector’s CO2 emissions.
The volumes are scarcely more encouraging for LDVs. The electric/hybrid fleet has increased tenfold between 2011 and 2020 with cumulative sales over the past 14 months of 11,000 units. In a fleet of 6 million vehicles, this is a drop in the bucket.
Why is the transition not faster given that electric drives have been around for decades? There are numerous reasons:
- Even if all the major constructors have got involved (at least on paper), the offer does not satisfy haulers’ expectations, especially in terms of range. This is especially true of road tractors. The Carbone4 experts consider that “battery electric drives are not available for this type of vehicle”. To date, according to them, the only vehicles on the road are prototypes or early production models (Tesla, Nikola One, Hyundai). The offering for LDVs, the primary uses of which are compatible with shorter range, is more mature.
- Notwithstanding conversion subsidies (the State, local authorities), the purchase price is far higher than for a combustion engine vehicle. The battery price means that the longer the range, the higher the price… Supposing that these models are available in France, the 480 km range Tesla Semi comes in at a fairly reasonable 150,000 dollars, but the Nikola One, with a 2000 km range on paper is still a hefty 375,000 dollars...
- The charging station network is not yet adequate to requirements, especially for rapid recharging. The Corri-Door network (200 rapid charging stations), with half the cost financed by the European Commission, was halted in March 2020. Tesla is investing and currently has 77 stations in France, with 10 charging points per station. Total is planning to equip 300 of its stations with ultra-rapid charging ports by the end of 2022.
- The pump price of diesel is relatively low, which is not incentivizing investment, and is slowing fleet renewal, especially in a situation in which many transport companies are in dire financial difficulties because of the Covid crisis.
Hydrogen, yes! But when?
Hydrogen’s share in road freight transport is currently non-existent. One after the other, manufacturers are positioning themselves on this market and governments are committing billions to develop this “energy of the future”. Hydrogen fuel cell technology has been around for more than a century and affords two major advantages: it emits very little by way of local pollutants, and in the event no CO2, and provides superior performance to that of combustion engines.
Given these advantages, you have to ask why hydrogen powered electric motors have not already become ubiquitous. The answer is to do with hydrogen's characteristics:
- Unlike fossil fuels, hydrogen does not exist in its native state. It needs to be produced. Obtaining hydrogen – be it by hydrocarbon cracking, by electrolysis or thermolysis – requires a lot of energy expenditure. In terms of carbon footprint, the process is only virtuous if this energy is itself decarbonized.
- Hydrogen is not liquefiable at ambient temperatures. What is more, it is highly inflammable. But above all it is of very low density and needs to be compressed, which makes transporting and storing it problematic, energy intensive and expensive.
For both these reasons, the experts who are most skeptical about the large-scale development of hydrogen technology have a saying which is difficult to translate into French: “Hydrogen is the fuel of the future, and it always will be”.
However, the resources that have been committed should provide remedies to these obstacles. Without it being a valid option for private cars, hydrogen can currently be considered as the most promising and “greenest” energy solution for heavy vehicles – subject to being produced from decarbonized energies (nuclear and renewable energies) and to the creation of a proper distribution network. This network is in its infancy, in the absence of a viable economic model (high investment/extremely low demand). This will take years.
What will accelerate the transport sector energy transition
The current rate of renewal of the fleet is insufficient to meet the targets of reducing greenhouse gases and achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. Beyond corporate commitments, several factors may help accelerate the transformation of the fleet:
- Tightening up European regulations – In December 2020, the European Commission presented its “Sustainable and intelligent mobility strategy”, an action plan comprising 82 initiatives aiming at a 90% reduction in the sector’s emissions by 2050. In June 2021, the Commission will propose a revision of the CO2 emission standards for cars and trucks, which will increase pressure on the transport offering.
- Tightening local regulations – Regional and local authorities are imposing ever more stringent restrictions on polluting vehicles entering dense urban areas. These measures, and the accompanying support measures, are encouraging the leading last kilometer delivery actors to invest in electric LDVs.
- Manufacturers’ commitments – In December 2020, 7 major manufacturers (Daimler, Scania, Man, Volvo, Daf, Iveco and Ford) signed a joint document in which they undertook to stop selling diesel engines before 2040. They are therefore undertaking to encourage the manufacturing and sale of battery, hydrogen or “clean fuel” trucks and vans”.
- The consequences of the crisis – An International Road Transport Union (IRU) study shows that SMEs in the sector have derived virtually no benefit from the bailout plans put in place during the pandemic. The IRU is forecasting a wave of bankruptcies that will fall first and foremost on these small companies, of which there are many in the sector. The financially healthier, large companies will emerge stronger from the crisis and, with the wherewithal to invest, should force the pace in “greening” their fleet, thereby meeting shippers’ burgeoning environmental requirements.
The continuing war on inefficiencies
The focus on changing drives/fuels should not blind us to the other ways, far less onerous than the purchase of new vehicles, in which companies can reduce their carbon footprint right now, in particular:
Eco-driving – by training all their drivers in the principles of eco-driving, companies can reduce their fuel consumption by between 15% and 20%. For large fleets, not only does that represent very significant savings, but also an appreciable reduction in greenhouse gas emissions because, quite logically, the less fuel you burn, the less you emit.
Optimizing journeys and routes – Companies using GEOCONCEPT’s significantly reduce the distance their vehicles travel, and therefore their fuel consumption and CO2 emissions. They achieve in the process, while maximizing their vehicles’ use and their drivers’ work schedule. To master the geographical dimension is self-evidently also to master one’s environmental impact.
In a situation in which many companies have been weakened, no efficiency gain can be ignored. This is especially crucial for for whom, in a situation in which e-commerce deliveries are exploding, it is imperative to if they are to maintain profitability. As William Béguerie, a road transport expert, makes clear in this white paper: “Increasing the efficiency of urban deliveries is essential in terms of cost, but also acceptability.The vice is tightening on the most polluting vehicles. Electric vehicles are becoming a very serious option. […] Solving last kilometer inefficiencies will therefore remain an important objective for logistics companies in 2021. Understanding territorial influence on urban delivery will be key in improving urban distribution.”