Paving the way to Zero-Emission Transport

Heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) were responsible for 16% of UK domestic transport greenhouse gas emissions in 2019, with levels remaining consistent throughout the pandemic.

The critical nature of this mode of transport for the global supply chain presents a challenge; logistics must be maintained while significantly reducing emissions.

For the UK to achieve its Net Zero ambitions by 2050, urgent action and innovation is required. There is an array of exciting innovations that are clearing a path towards Net Zero freight, but there are some crucial stages in the journey still ahead. We explore the scale of the challenge, the unique difficulties associated with freight decarbonisation, and the fragmented nature of the HGV market.

As Nicola Yates OBE, CEO of Connected Places Catapult, says: ‘Achieving UK and global targets for Net Zero will be the defining challenge of the next three decades, and a central driver of innovation and change across all sectors.’ This crisp summary highlights the importance of this challenge and the need for integrated infrastructure to be a critical part of the solution.

Assessing the challenge

HGVs require a lot of power due to their size and weight, and they need to operate for long periods without stopping. This combination amounts to a massive demand for energy, especially when travelling more than 400km per day at high speeds. Fragmentation in the HGV market has compounded the difficulty of this challenge, with a range of vehicle types within the category serving numerous different sectors.

Different types of HGV and different duty cycles are required depending on the operation they are needed for, creating a level of complexity that will make a standardised transition very difficult to roll out. Additionally, it is critical for hauliers that they can maintain an efficient, cost-effective service for customers, adding another element of pressure to the challenge.

Innovative solutions

The first promising option for tacking HGV emissions is hydrogen fuel cells, whereby HGVs are fitted with electric powertrains. This enables the vehicle to store energy as hydrogen and then convert it into electricity, completely removing tail pipe emissions. As part of this solution, a battery can be deployed alongside the hydrogen system to provide additional power when needed.

The transition to this format can be streamlined by converting conventional internal combustion engines, but they offer limited efficiency and do not achieve the zero-emission status of the hydrogen fuel cell alternative. This approach has been made a reality in many international trials, with fuel cell cars and buses already in use across the UK. Despite this measurable progress, a hydrogen fuel cell HGV is yet to be built to UK specifications.

Electric Road Systems (ERS) offer another innovative potential solution to the issue of HGV emissions, which despite significant installation requirements, have been trialled in Germany, Sweden, and the United States. The most mature version of this type of technology is conductive overhead catenaries, which operates via a roof-mounted pantograph that connects with overhead wires. To aid your imagination, think of overhead rail electrification.

The 2050 target

Despite 2050 seeming like a distant point in the future, solving this challenge within the timeframe requires a rapid response. By our estimation, nation-wide deployment must take place as soon as 2030, and the sale of fossil-fuel powered HGVs must end by 2040 if we are to hit Net Zero targets.

During this timeframe, the necessary infrastructure must be deployed at scale, and a competitive commercial market for zero-emission HGV technologies will need to be established. At this point in time, the critical next step is to accelerate trialling and demonstration of the innovative and viable solutions that are available. This will allow for the most effective combination of technologies to be identified, for trust to be built, and for initial deployments to begin.