Road Freight Transport: Which Drive Technology Will it Be? 

Natural gas, electricity, hydrogen, or biofuel – which energy source will win the race? As long as this question remains unanswered, truck fleet operators will lack investment security. Leading associations in the transport industry are therefore demanding a binding roadmap from politicians. But what could that roadmap look like?

Photo: Shutterstock - Elnur

Heavy trucks are to emit 15 percent less CO2 by 2025 and 30 percent less by 2030. Photo: Shutterstock – Elnur

“European policy-makers must set framework conditions and define energy sources for the road transport of the future in order to give all those involved a reliable signal for future investments,” several national industry associations, above all the German Federal Association of Road Haulage, Logistics and Waste Management (BGL), appealed to the EU in the middle of the year. Only then can there be planning security. The operators of transport fleets in particular are looking for clues as to which drive solutions to invest in, while the vehicle industry is pushing various drive solutions. While some are advancing natural gas drives – be it CNG (gaseous methane) or LNG (liquefied methane) – others swear by different, purely electrical solutions.

Openness to technology versus investment security

LNG and CNG powered trucks will be given financial preference for tolls up to 2023. Photo: Rolande

LNG and CNG powered trucks will be given financial preference for tolls up to 2023. Photo: Rolande

In view of this variety and the high investment costs, the call for a binding roadmap is understandable. However, such a roadmap is opposed to the demand for openness to technology, which is represented, for example, by the European Automobile Manufacturers Association (ACEA) and the non-partisan expert committee National Platform Future of Mobility (NPM). “E-mobility, fuel cell drives, as well as synthetic fuels enable CO2-neutral mobility in road freight transport. The range of applications in road freight transport is very diverse, from CEP services to trans-European heavy goods transport. Fleet operators will not be able to avoid dealing with individual technologies and aligning them with their own requirements – be it in terms of costs, market maturity, availability, and range requirements, as well as loading and refueling options, but also in terms of applicable funding instruments and the development of the regulatory framework,” explains Prof. Dr. Henning Kagermann, Chairman of NPM.

CO2 legislation provides a framework

But EU-wide rules already exist. If you read between the lines, you can derive your procurement strategy from them. Last year, for example, the EU adopted CO2 limits for heavy commercial vehicles. According to these, heavy trucks are to emit 15 percent less CO2 by 2025 and 30 percent less by 2030, compared to the reference year 2019. The tank-to-wheel balance is measured, but not the CO2 balance for the provision of an energy source nor for the production of a corresponding vehicle. The consumption of a truck is determined by simulation tool Vecto. The fleet consumption of a truck brand is then calculated according to the sales mix. If limits are exceeded, the industry is threatened with painful fines. However, vehicle manufacturers can have so-called supercredits credited to them by selling zero-emission trucks, among other things. A prerequisite is that these models account for at least two percent of total sales.

Method of CO2 balancing speaks in favor of electric trucks

Before 2021/22 there will be no purely electrical large-scale production solution. Photo: Daimler

Before 2021/22 there will be no purely electrical large-scale production solution. Photo: Daimler

This CO2 balancing indicates that beyond 2025, purely electrically driven and thus locally CO2-free drives will be the winner and that synthetic fuels will not play a role. The CO2 savings of natural gas drives are around ten percent too low to achieve the necessary fleet target. The revision of CO2 limits in 2025 could result in even more ambitious targets. The stricter the targets, the greater the importance of supercredits and zero-emission vehicles.

The crux of the matter: Before 2021/22 there will be no purely electrical large-scale production solution – neither for distribution nor for long-distance transport. Starting next year, the industry wants to be able to steadily deliver. LNG- or CNG-powered trucks are only attractive as long as the financial preference for tolls (currently until 2023) remains in place and as long as they’re the only technological alternative to diesel for long-distance transport. The first trucks with a fuel cell as an energy source are already being tested. Once they’re fully developed, it will only be a question of price before they overtake LNG vehicles.

Gas trucks are a bridge solution, the future belongs to fuel cell trucks

In distribution transport, on the other hand, battery electric trucks may be an alternative starting in 2021. This, too, depends largely on the level at which prices are formed and whether the vehicles are linked to a business model, such as supplying special emission zones. This view is also confirmed by Prof. Dr. Dirk Engelhardt, Spokesman of the BGL Executive Board: “In the medium to long term, we see fuel cell drives as the most likely solution for long-distance transport. In local and regional transport, battery-powered trucks should come out on top.” For the transition phase, natural gas vehicles and e-fuels will have to be used to reduce CO2 emissions. However, fuel infrastructure must always be one step ahead of vehicle technology.

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