Technology and politics will plot the route to post-diesel trucking

The trucking sector is under increasing pressure to move away from diesel. The route to low- and zero-emissions trucking may not depend purely on efficiency. By Jean-Dominique Bonnet

Special report: When will the trucking industry be ready to ditch diesel?

The world is at a crossroads as to how it will address the challenge of transportation. Less than a decade ago, concepts such as electrification, autonomous trucking, connectivity and alternatives to vehicle ownership were foreign to most people. Now these ideas are mainstream, even if their implementation isn’t, and activity around them is about to intensify.

Demand for freight is growing rapidly, driven by continued globalisation across developing nations, and the unstoppable growth of e-commerce, including same-day delivery. At the same time, the challenges presented by peak oil, peak gas and climate goals require an accelerated shift towards net-carbon neutral approaches. All of these new ideas will be essential in contributing to this colossal transition over the next 20 years.

Definite winners may not appear until 2050, and will likely be different for each application. What’s certain is that, sooner rather than later, they will all be united in their demands for receiving the special attention of governments that will be dearly missing taxes on conventional fuels

But which technology will power this mobility in lieu of diesel? A decade ago, there were hints of a massive shift to natural gas engines in the wake of fracking. These were met with calls for a more radical approach, and significant advances in battery energy storage, both in terms of density and cost, spurred the belief that the future would be electric. That belief remains the subject of intense debate, challenged most recently by an unexpected resurgence of interest for hydrogen-powered fuel cells.

The hydrogen society

The interest for hydrogen can be explained partly by public fascination in the fact that hydrogen fuel’s only byproduct is water: meanwhile, most have little knowledge of what happens upstream of, or around, hydrogen. However, more important than that is fuel cell trucking’s place in the longer-term vision of a hydrogen economy, which many consider the future: along with transportation, it tackles the broader subject of energy supply and management.

A perhaps under-appreciated trait of today’s continuous, fast-reacting power from nuclear or fossil fuel-fired power plants is its reliability and convenience. If tomorrow’s promise of green energy and electricity is fulfilled mainly through wind and solar power, with a few additions such as geothermal and hydraulic, we will have to deal with its inherent collateral effect of intermittency. The fact is that solar and wind-based electricity production can suffer from fluctuations over the course of the day, or even periods that can extend up to several days on a regional level, depending on the weather. A possible remedy for this could be to produce an excess of electricity when conditions are favourable, store it, then release it as needed.

The question is how to practically store the excess energy which cannot fit on an electric truck battery, as this could represent the equivalent of days of energy production. One proposed solution is to use excess electricity to produce hydrogen, storing it in large quantities—such as underground caves if the local topology is supportive of it—and finally turning it back to electricity when needed. Viable though it may be, it brings with it inefficiencies as sizable losses are incurred in the different steps; yet better alternatives are not forthcoming.

Underdogs such as e-fuels for ICEs have the advantage of offering the convenience of liquids or relatively high-density gases and therefore a continuity approach. However, they are handicapped by high fuel cost

This approach towards overall energy management would have the side effect of freeing up large-scale production of hydrogen that could be also used for transportation. Alternately, if other ways of managing energy were pursued, hydrogen could still be produced targeting more specifics uses, such as trucking. In this context, the fate of the different solutions envisioned for transportation, from battery electric vehicles (EV) to fuel cell vehicles (FCEV), as well as generally less-favoured candidates such as e-fuels and renewable fuels, would be the result of a combination of economic and political factors.

Get competitive

Compared with FCEVs, EVs benefit from years of advancement, and are already competitive against traditional internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles in specific applications such as urban delivery, or even refuse applications. They benefit from wider acceptance, greater availability of infrastructure, and improved total cost of ownership standpoint—the sum of vehicle acquisition cost, plus the total of all related operational costs such as energy and maintenance over the life of the vehicle.

This competitiveness will expand to regional haul and vocational applications within the next two to three years. Furthermore, whilst there is some disagreement over the issue, it is possible that continued progress in battery cost and battery life could see this competitiveness extend to long haul applications for heavy-duty trucking. We believe this is quite likely to materialise. Confirmation of this could arrive in the short term, with a long haul tractor designed by Tesla scheduled to enter production in the US soon. Regardless, as EVs roll out, objections and difficulties will certainly arise as to the ability to adequately scale up production and distribution of electricity, along with questions around the environment and ethics, from mining and working conditions to recyclability. The process may be chaotic, but it is virtually certain that these will be resolved in time.

In contrast, FCEVs bring an energy efficiency that is less than half that of battery EVs. A quick review shows that 5% to 10% of energy is lost when compressing hydrogen to 10,000 psi. This loss can even exceed 20% if going for liquid hydrogen LH2; 45% to 55% is then lost in the conversion of hydrogen to electricity in the fuel cell itself. In addition, if the hydrogen is produced by means of electricity, the hydrolysis process introduces another 15% loss. Combined with a high cost of hydrogen, this makes FCEVs uneconomical to use in most cases when compared to ICEs and EVs. This remains the case until hydrogen reaches a cost around US$3/kg, which might not happen until 2030. Meanwhile, ‘blue’ hydrogen, made using fossil resources with carbon mitigation through carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), could provide a better if not temporary economic alternative to ‘green’ hydrogen production.

Underdogs such as e-fuels for ICEs, a term describing net carbon-neutral fuels produced using electricity that can be used as drop-in replacement fuels, have the advantage of offering the convenience of liquids or relatively high-density gases and therefore a continuity approach. However, they are handicapped by high fuel cost, and are subject to the limitations or drawbacks inherent to ICEs, including energy efficiency lower than that of FCEVs, and the need for technologies to control emissions of pollutants such as NOx, particulate matter and hydrocarbons.

Demand for freight is growing rapidly, driven by continued globalisation across developing nations, and the unstoppable growth of e-commerce, including same-day delivery

Then there is the spectre of biofuels. Critics highlight the displacement of crops that plant-derived biofuels can cause. This can be addressed by using switchgrass or algae. Furthermore, solutions exist to overcome the parasitic greenhouse gas emissions potentially incurred in the production process. However, to date, such conditions have seldom been fully met, and this has not built a supportive view of biofuels for use as part of a long-term sustainability plan, relegating them at best to niche applications, such as renewable natural gas (RNG).

The overall result means that the commercial vehicle industry should not expect a one-fits-all approach, at least not for now. We can expect a messy transition in which fragmentation between ICE, EV, and then later FCEV—possibly for political reasons more than for their own merit—will become common place. Furthermore, the industry cannot rule out unexpected technological breakthroughs, which could shake up the system and alter the path in a chaotic tug-of-war. Interventions from certain governments and the lobbying of particular interests will ultimately funnel, if not direct, the evolution. In the end, ICEs will be out.

There is significant opportunity ahead, and it will be a risky time for anyone to choose anything less than optimal: and sub-optimality there will be. Definite winners may not appear until 2050, and will likely be different for each application. What’s certain is that, sooner rather than later, they will all be united in their demands for receiving the special attention of governments that will be dearly missing taxes on conventional fuels.

Jean-Dominique Bonnet is Principal Consultant, Commercial Vehicles at Frost & Sullivan

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