Driving towards a greener lorry revolution

Opportunities and challenges associated with introducing battery electric or hydrogen fuel cell heavy goods vehicles were outlined at an event hosted by Connected Places Catapult.

Encouraging the logistics sector to increase its investment in zero emission road freight vehicles represents a welcome aim in the medium term to help the country meet its carbon reduction commitments. But significant undertakings remain before we can see wider deployment, delegates to Connected Places Catapult’s recent event ‘Decarbonisation of Transport – Powering the Future of Mobility’ heard.

The list of hurdles to overcome in terms of greening the lorry fleet is long, acknowledged event chair and Catapult Executive Director for Delivery, Alan Welby. So what, he asked a panel of speakers, should be the priority areas of focus?

“For me, it is about getting the foundations laid for where we want to go in the future. This means gathering data on the performance of zero emission vehicles and starting to have conversations as to how we can get recharging infrastructure built, and which type of infrastructure is most suitable.”
Connected Places Catapult Lead Systems Engineer, Alan Nettleton

Chris Ashley of the Road Haulage Association added that another area of focus should be around changing ‘mindsets’ in the sector to encourage the greater take up of zero emission road freight vehicles. “There is a role for both Government and trade bodies like the RHA to guide the conversation, and we need to have sensible discussions around the costs involved: how they are managed and paid for,” he said.

Innovate UK’s senior programme manager for zero emission vehicles, Dr Alistair Barnes said an emphasis must be on trying to get large freight vehicles on the road soon. “It will not be long before zero emission vehicles become cost competitive against diesel vehicles.” But he added: “A lot of private sector capital is needed for decarbonisation in order to build momentum. The earlier we start, the better.”

An important sector to decarbonise

Earlier in the session, Alan Nettleton outlined how the pandemic had reaffirmed just how much the country relies on road freight movements. While modal shift away from lorries to rail and other forms of transport such as cargo bicycles should be encouraged, “in the vast majority of cases, there is no viable alternative. We need to make trucks as environmentally friendly as possible in both the near and long term”.

Alan outlined the technologies available to decarbonise freight movements – from electric road systems to battery electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel cell trucks – and spoke of the challenges of scaling up each option. But there is an overarching need, he added, for large scale evidence gathering from trials “to address the technical, operational and commercial barriers to enable wider deployment. The ultimate aim is to enable zero emission vehicles to replace their internal combustion engine counterparts.

“We know that climate change is not going to wait, so into the 2030s we need the roll-out of infrastructure and zero emission vehicles to accelerate, so that by 2040 there is full nationwide coverage. But we need to know which infrastructure to roll out at scale, and get that right first time.”

He added that Connected Places Catapult is investigating what needs to be standardised to help accelerate the transition, ways of attracting further investment, options for exporting solutions overseas, and ways of making sure that the infrastructure introduced is fit for purpose.

A freight operator perspective

Chris Ashley of the Road Haulage Association welcomed the roll out of the Zero Emission Road Freight programme, but called on Government to provide a roadmap for decarbonisation to provide added certainty to operators. He added: “We want to make sure that zero emission heavy goods vehicles can be accommodated in all parts of the UK and for all sections of industry, including construction, forests and quarries.”

He suggested that tax breaks be introduced to help haulage companies invest in greener vehicles, but asked how resilient a fleet powered by electricity would be in the event of a prolonged power outage.

Chris also pointed out: “How we service the remote and rural areas is a difficult question, politically. Will there be a future role for diesel to cover those really hard to decarbonise areas? We need to leave that question open for now until the zero emission technology develops and is mature enough to cover all use cases.”

“We support the net zero end goals, but they are not without their challenges. There is the capital cost of vehicles – electric trucks can cost three times that of diesel vehicles – and infrastructure provision and vehicle performance are big challenges. The public expects goods to be delivered by a certain time, so we need to ensure levels of service can be maintained.”
Chris Ashley of the Road Haulage Association

Gathering data to further the ambition

Dr Alistair Barnes of Innovate UK said £200M is being invested by the Department for Transport in partnership with Innovate UK to run on-road demonstrations through the Zero Emission Road Freight Demonstration programme, and winners of a competition will be announced soon.

A key aim is to accumulate useful data, he added. “It will be great to get hundreds of battery-electric and hydrogen vehicles on the road, see how they perform and run for a number of years. But it is the learning from the sector that we are particularly interested in.”

He said he wanted to counter a “misconception” around battery-electric technology that it is “technically difficult to charge large vehicles quickly”. The challenge instead, he said, is around infrastructure and managing demand for recharging during peak periods. He added that in terms of hydrogen, the economics of deploying it at scale for the freight sector are currently uncertain.

In conclusion he said: “It will be interesting to see how demonstrations progress over time. I hope the industry will be watching and learning from the programme.”

Delegates also heard from the British Standards Institution’s Senior Lead for Transport & Mobility, Rajesh Kungur who outlined a review of standards for zero emission charging infrastructure and vehicles.

He said: “Areas of focus include the position of charging connectors on vehicles, the design of electric vehicle charging stations and the refuelling needs of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. A survey was conducted this spring to understand from industry where it thinks guidance and standards are needed. Results are expected soon.”

Those gathered also learned about opportunities for decarbonising the maritime sector from Connected Places Catapult’s Senior Standards Innovation Coordinator, Marina Garyfalou. “We definitely need the demonstrations and trials, but we also need standards to prove the safety case, especially in the maritime sector to allow (new boats) to operate in different ports.”

Marina added: “Small operators don’t have the luxury of trialling different fuel types; they will want to know where they should invest their money.”

Connected Places Catapult’s Director of New Mobility Technologies, Professor Henry Tse told delegates to the event: “All of these discussions have been crucial in setting the agenda for future action.

“As we move forward, it’s important that we continue to work together towards achieving our carbon goals, delivering green jobs, cleaner air, and a better place for all. We need to take bold steps and make significant investments to drive the transition towards a more sustainable and resilient transport system.”

Henry added: “Let’s continue the conversation and work together towards a greener and more sustainable future for our transport system. We have the opportunity to make a positive impact on our planet and our communities, and we must seize it with determination and urgency.”