Need for speed on ‘green’ truck development as hauliers risk backing wrong tech

As a deadline looms for the lorries that shift more than half of Britain’s domestic freight, concern is growing that their green replacements are not arriving quickly enough. The sale of diesel-run heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) will be banned by 2040, with zero emissions big trucks taking their place on the UK’s motorways. Still up for debate, however, is whether electric motors or hydrogen gas is the best technology for these green monsters.

Experts warn a decision will need to be made in the next five years, with no current mass-market option. The lack of battery and hydrogen HGVs is causing headaches for those who manage fleets and must start replacing ageing models, preferably with units that will hold their value. The risk, especially for smaller hauliers, is spending hundreds of thousands of pounds backing the wrong technology.

For hauliers operating on margins of a few percent, this could be catastrophic. Tim Buchan, chief executive of Zenith Vehicles, which manages the leasing of a fleet of 143,000 vehicles, including 10,000 HGVs, says: “It’s a very challenging environment for both the vehicle manufacturers and the operators, with no clear roadmap forward.” Articulated lorries – those that combine tractors and trailers – carry 62pc of Britain’s road freight, and just over half of total domestic freight that includes rail, ships and vans, according to Connected Places Catapult, a Government innovation body for the transport industry. 

It estimates that in order to feasibly create green alternatives in time, a decision must be made by 2027 on whether electric, hydrogen or a mixture of the two would best be used. 

TRUCK EMISSIONS WILL FALL AT THE SLOWEST RATE

Problems spanning both options include costs of production and the end product, as well as a lack of infrastructure – and the speed at which they need to be developed. A third option, which has been trialled in Germany, Sweden and the US, is to build electric tram-style overhead cabling on the busiest routes, powering large trucks straight from the grid. These could be fitted with smaller batteries for much better efficiency. 

Many in the industry see hydrogen as the best choice to replace diesel. The gas is very energy-dense, with one kilogramme of hydrogen able to replace about 3.3 litres of diesel. This means long distances can be travelled using manageable amounts of the gas.

A lack of hydrogen refuelling stations, however, poses a challenge. The UK has just over a dozen and, more importantly, none of the vehicles are yet available for sale on forecourts.

WHERE HYDROGEN VEHICLES CAN REFUEL

“You need hydrogen infrastructure, but there’s also challenges in terms of actually getting a commercially viable product,” says Ian Foley, a former F1 engineer for Lotus who set up an electrification business for buses and trucks. He says a plentiful supply of hydrogen made by wind power is some way off, as is a reliable distribution system. 

For electric versions, he argues, “technically, everything is there for it to work”.  Foley’s Norwich-based firm, Equipmake, designs pure electric buses with two versions set to operate in the UK from May. It is also geared up to convert old models to go all-electric and avoid having to send expensive bodies to the scrapyard.

In indsutry developments so far, a new electric model from Dutch truck manufacturing firm Daf takes 75 minutes to charge for a range of less than 140 miles, while Volvo promises a model that can run 215 miles later this year. The cost benefit seems to add up. For a 44-tonne articulated lorry to drive 350 miles on a single charge requires about four-to-five tonnes of battery, which costs about GBP100,000 to GBP150,000, according to Foley.

This compares to a GBP75,000 diesel-drive model.  But with charging costing far less than diesel, the fuel savings can have paid for those batteries in about five years, he says, assuming diesel at a generous GBP1 per litre and energy at 10 pence per kilowatt hour.  In the UK, however, one cost incentives for battery-run HGVs could fall apart if the Government decides to recoup what it loses in fuel duty, in the move away from petrol vehicles, through imposing charges that do not apply currently to electric vehicles.

Firmly in the hydrogen camp is Amanda Lyne, who founded hydrogen tech firm ULEMCo in 2014. Her company is developing fuel cells to burn hydrogen cleanly and produce electricity, enabling commercial vehicles, including HGVs, to convert the fuel they run on.

HYDROGEN FUEL CELLS MOSTLY POWER CARS

The system, which can burn both diesel and hydrogen, allows councils and businesses running bin lorries and road sweepers to mix in the cleaner gas when diesel struggles most, at low speed. It adds about 20pc to the cost of a diesel vehicle. 

“We did it with some transit vans, and you can actually get up to 70pc of the energy coming from hydrogen,” she says. “If there’s no hydrogen available, the vehicle will still operate diesel.” Lyne says her business has converted more than 100 commercial vehicles, mainly council ones, from Aberdeen to Heathrow. “They’re all in real world use.

It’s not something in the future – it’s now. The truth is, these fleet operators have almost no choice. Lots of people are talking about battery versions, but the battery versions are very expensive and not really commercially available yet,” she says.

She believes a distribution solution in the UK is close, while technology such as hydrogen combustion and fuel cells are also not far away, with companies such as New York-based Hyzon already delivering small numbers of hydrogen-powered trucks to customers in the Netherlands and China. Zenith’s Tim Buchan, a potential customer of these technologies, has reservations about where electric trucks will park to charge, or how fueling stations will safely carry the vast amounts of hydrogen needed. He believes the ticking of the clock should force larger truck makers to speed up their development. 

“I don’t think if these businesses wanted to continue to be around that they’re going to have any choice – they’re going to have to invest in the research to find the right solutions.”