The transition to electric drives in the heavy commercial vehicle sector is a central building block for emission-free road freight transport in Europe. The European Commission has set the bar high in the current legislative process for new standards: In relation to the 2019 fleet emissions, manufacturers must reduce the emissions of their new vehicles by 45 percent in the first phase by 2030, and 65 percent by 2035. A big leap will be needed to achieve a 90 percent reduction by 2040. So, in theory, the overall approach for a system change is clear. But there are high hurdles to be overcome, not least due to the diesel engine’s market dominance. According to the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (ACEA), the diesel engine is still the benchmark with a market share of over 95 percent. On the other hand, most commercial vehicle manufacturers are already playing the electric card – MAN and Volvo, for example, want to equip every second heavy-duty truck with an electric drive by 2030. For now, though, every new electric truck in customer hands is still a big deal. In the EU, only around 4,000 new registrations were recorded in the first nine months of this year, with around 65 percent of sales taking place in Germany and the Netherlands. Meaning that the market share of e-trucks in the EU has grown from 0.4 percent in the previous year to 1.5 percent.
Which electric system is a relevant player in the transition of drive systems?
So do these figures herald the start of the drive system transition? Of course, market shares must increase significantly for the zero-emission commercial vehicles needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to hit the roads on a large scale. Next to battery electric trucks, other candidates are vehicles with hydrogen fuel cells and trucks powered by overhead lines. But who has the edge in the sprint to the 2030 milestone? Who is even a relevant player in this drive system transition? Around a dozen current studies are looking at precisely these questions. Most of them take a close look at technological and economic aspects in their scenarios for a market ramp-up. The focus lies on technological improvements, cost reductions for batteries, fuel cells, and hydrogen tanks, as well as the development of prices for diesel, electricity, and renewable hydrogen. The one thing the studies all have in common is the crystal-clear insight that without the timely development of public energy infrastructures, a sustainable change of drive systems will remain a pipe dream.
The battery-electric truck is the designated main player on the market
However, when it comes to naming the future key players in the transportation market, not all studies are singing the same tune. The analysts at McKinsey, for example, assume in their work (September 2022) that battery and fuel cell drives will be the best technologies for fleet operators in the major commercial vehicle markets of the EU, USA, and China by 2030, in terms of emissions and total cost of ownership (TCO). Depending on the region, the two drive systems would complement each other to a greater or lesser extent. However, a vote for the supremacy of battery-electric trucks comes from the Netherlands. Here, a funding program for climate-neutral trucks, launched in April 2023, led to around 1,600 inquiries for this drive variant within a very short period of time. The study by the Organization for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) on the introduction of zero-emission trucks in the EU and UK (October 2022) examines battery and fuel cell drives in various vehicle segments (motor vehicles/trailer combinations) that are used in urban delivery traffic, regional and long-distance transport, and the construction industry. According to the study, battery-powered trucks are the most cost-effective option in almost all cases – even if there is only a slow decrease in battery prices, which are relatively low compared to diesel fuel or relatively high compared to electricity.
When will trucks with fuel cells and overhead lines get their shot?
The Dutch see potential restrictions for battery-powered trucks in long-distance transport with daily mileages of up to 1,000 kilometers. Does this mean that fuel cell trucks will get their shot in the Netherlands in 2030? According to TNO, this will be the case for a very limited proportion of the long-distance fleet at best. The main argument against the fuel cell drive are the costs, which could hardly compete with batteries or diesel even if prices for hydrogen and fuel cells were lower. But what about supplying a truck with drive energy via an overhead line system installed on the road? The Freiburg-based Öko-Institut is investigating this technological option for the electrification of road freight transport in a scenario study (August 2023). The conclusion: The system offers favorable overall usage costs, but is unlikely to develop any market potential by 2030. But the overhead line should not be written off just yet. Practical tests on country roads and highways are still ongoing in Germany and Sweden. Countries such as the Netherlands, Italy, and Denmark are also conducting relevant studies. Whether a European solution can be found, however, is written in the stars.
The drive system transition will not necessarily lead to the achievement of climate targets
Incidentally, the same also applies to the question of whether a successful drive system transition will lead to road freight transport reaching its milestones. In its Ariadne Report (October 2021), the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) casts considerable doubt regarding Germany. Even a very steep market ramp-up of battery electric vehicles would not be enough to achieve the sector targets set in the Federal Climate Protection Act by 2030. According to the report, the short-term CO2 reduction potential is limited by the longevity of existing fossil fuel vehicles. However, it should be possible to achieve almost complete decarbonization of the transport sector by 2045 – with very low levels of residual emissions.