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Are zero-emission vehicles the right goal for delivery?

Allen Schaeffer suggests the delivery segment should be looking at the broader carbon footprint factor as opposed to strictly tailpipe emissions. By Megan Lampinen

In 2018, zero-emission trucking start-up Nikola Motor Company chose to promote its Nikola World event with the hashtag #dieselisdead. The technology’s demise has been predicted for years now, spurred on by ever-tightening emissions regulations, sales restrictions and city centre low- and zero-emission zones. Commitments to phase out the internal combustion engine (ICE) have been pouring in from manufacturers and governments alike, and not just for light vehicles. The UK, for example, recently outlined a roadmap to stop the sale of new ICE commercial vehicles by 2040. Decarbonising efforts have been pushed front and centre in fleet strategies, but does that mean the future is necessarily electric?

Automotive World Magazine – January 2022

Perhaps, argues Allen Schaeffer, Director of the Diesel Technology Forum (DTF), it is more ‘eclectic’ than ‘electric. The DTF is a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to raising awareness about the importance of diesel engines, fuel and technology. It argues that decarbonisation is an important goal but that it should be pursued via several different technologies, not just battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs). This is particularly pressing for the commercial delivery sector, where the fleet’s environmental impact is matched only by its economic importance. Automotive World sat down with Schaeffer to hear more about his outlook for this sector and the chances of realising a zero-emission future.

How do you see the powertrain mix playing out among delivery vehicles? 

The future is eclectic, particularly during the next two decades. This will be quite a dynamic time where many strategies, fuels and technologies come into play. Their individual success depends on several factors: government action on climate including policies and dollars, advancements in technology such as breakthroughs in batteries, e-fuels and green hydrogen, and the use of renewable biodiesel fuels and e-fuels across the existing fleet. Keep in mind the carbon footprints depend on the source of the electricity; in the US the electricity mix now is mostly natural gas and coal with renewables growing but inconsistently. An EV might be more of a CNG vehicle for some time in some areas.

Special report: Heavy-duty diesel engine technology
How much longer does diesel technology have?

What about for the short-range urban delivery segment in particular? There has been considerable interest in electrifying these applications.

For light payloads to consumers and light retail, EVs are probably a no-brainer. These would be the most likely to move farthest away from gasoline and diesel, but gasoline and diesel will remain plenty relevant in all these sectors for some time. None of this magnitude of change happens overnight. For heavier loads orientated to businesses and a regional delivery model an EV might work as well but maybe hydrogen ICE or fuel cell would make more sense.

Do you expect zero-emission technology to make its way to long-haul applications as well?

Long-haul is more complicated. In the US diesel has been king for several decades. Tighter emissions standards and greater efficiency coming in the next five to seven years will keep it a player well into the future. The success of other competitors—BEV, FCEV and hydrogen ICE—depend more on footholds they can establish through government policy and dollars that enable them to nibble on the edges of the mainstream diesel long-haul business.

How actively are fleets moving towards these alternative technologies?

Some fleets will do more, some less. I predict more wait-and-see from the bread and butter trucking industry; the global package delivery companies that typically dominate with media announcements of new technologies have always been laboratories for exploring every type of fuel and technology out there, but that is definitely not the mainstream trucking industry in the US. We need to be mindful of the complexity and diversity in the trucking industry.

Xcient fuel cell truck
Hyundai’s NorCAL ZERO project, also known as Zero-Emission Regional Truck Operations with Fuel Cell Electric Trucks, will deploy 30 units of the Class 8 Xcient Fuel Cell to northern California by the second quarter of 2023

There hasn’t been too much noise lately on hydrogen ICE applications. Any thoughts on that route?

For long haul especially in the next ten to 20 years there is a bigger opportunity in hydrogen ICEs than we are hearing about. This will be an increasingly attractive option also because it leverages the deep and wide investments in ICE technology over the last century. There should be more interest in finding ways to lower the carbon footprint more broadly across millions of existing vehicles rather than trying to pick a point in the future where all have been converted. This is where fuel substitution comes in. E-fuels and renewable biofuels offer very good decarbonisation potential and likely more rapid benefits than a full fleet turnover to non-ICE, if that were to even be realistic.

What are the main considerations behind the powertrain decision for the delivery segment?

Much attention is paid to just the initiative to acquire new fuel and technology vehicles—pencilling out the total cost of ownership and return on investment for various fuel price scenarios and capital equipment acquisitions—at this stage that is the ‘end of the story’. It is all about ‘someone switched from diesel or gasoline to something else.’ However, that is probably the easy part. It is what comes next—the real world—where the hard work and story begins.

Talk me through some of the details of what comes next.

Most fleet managers have to continue to deliver their freight as promised, and today we know exactly what that looks like with diesel. We know where we can find parts and servicing in every city, town, village and in the US interstate highway network. What is the prospect of a similar expectation with new fuels? EVs may have fewer moving parts but they will still break down. Is there a qualified repair technician wherever you are that can get you back on the road in two or three hours?

Range factors on EVs are another area of learning experience. The EV transit bus fleet experience is instructive. They are learning about the impact of air-conditioning and heat on the range of the service in particularly cold or warm climates. I read a report that heating the bus in cold weather reduced driving range by as much as 40%. That is perhaps an extreme but notable for route design and contingency planning and a limitation of new fuels and technologies.

Ford e-Transit
Ford’s 2022 all-electric E-Transit cargo van delivers up to 196 miles on a single charge

Many regions are pushing for zero-emission in city centres, but how quickly could this transition happen?

It is impossible to know. Punitive measures such as the date and time certain deadlines kick in are quite risky for livelihoods, economies and political futures, especially when not led by large amounts of public funding and other support. Is zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) the right goal? Should it be more of a carbon footprint basis with fleets and businesses deciding how best to do it? Decarbonised fuels across a wide fleet of existing vehicles might deliver faster benefits now but aren’t as politically popular as a ZEV or EV mandate. It presumes that there is one right solution, and in a problem this complicated rarely would there be a singular solution.

What other questions does the industry need to be asking at this stage?

What happens if government incentives, which bring down the initial investment costs for new technology vehicles and infrastructure, diminish or go away? Are fleets confident enough? Is the economy strong enough that they will be willing to make those higher dollar investments and carry those risks alone? Do utilities have their act together enough to deliver the power that will be needed? There are still many questions worth exploring.


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