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Electrifying Medium and Heavy Duty Trucks: Part One

( 07/22/2020 ) Written by: Jessica Sundberg

Medium- and heavy-duty trucks, a vehicle category that includes delivery vans and tractor trailers, consume a lot of fuel. Emissions from these vehicles are responsible for a large percentage of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions globally.

The Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks 1990–2017, which is the most recent national inventory covered on epa.gov, reported that transportation accounted for the largest portion (29 percent) of total U.S. GHG emissions in 2017. Twenty-three percent of this number was caused by medium- and heavy-duty trucks, even though passenger cars and other light duty vehicles exist in greater numbers than freight vehicles. According to ThinkProgress, heavy trucks make up only about 7 percent of the vehicles on the road in the U.S., but they consume about 25 percent of all fuel. The same report states that the truck fleet in the U.S. consumed about 2.7 million barrels of fuel each day in 2013 and emitted a total of 530 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.

Figures for the European Union (EU) are similar. A 2015 briefing by Transport & Environment estimated that truck emissions represented around 30 percent of all road transport emissions. Industry experts predict an even worse scenario by 2030—for example, an increase to 40 percent of road transport emissions is predicted for trucks in the Transport & Environment briefing. This is because medium- and heavy-duty truck transport has been escalating worldwide for decades, with no end in sight. The rise of e-commerce, in particular, is causing a sharp uptick in ground freight.

Pressure is mounting to reduce CO2 emissions. As part of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate, the United States agreed to cut emissions by 26 percent by 2025. Nearly 190 parties signed onto the Paris Agreement, with the European Union (EU) aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40 percent by 2030. China and India pledged to reduce their emissions intensity relative to GDP by 2030. 

Beyond these international cooperative efforts, corporate social responsibility and ISO 14001 are pushing fleet managers to meet tougher sustainability benchmarks. GreenBiz states that while right now less than 1 percent of fleet vehicles are electric, that number is expected to grow to 12 percent by 2030, driven by falling battery costs, industry partnerships and government incentives (especially from states such as California that are implementing tough emission standards). Even city governments are part of the force for change. “In 2019, the U.S. Climate Mayors launched their Climate Mayors Electric Vehicle Purchasing Collaborative to leverage their collective buying power and accelerate the conversion of public fleets to EVs,” says Geotab. Cities may support adoption of medium- and heavy-vehicle EVs in other ways: urban delivery trucks do not have to worry about range as much as long-distance trucking companies do; the reduction in air pollution and noise attributable to EVs is encouraging cities to incentivize their use; and Amazon, who has pledged to go carbon-neutral by 2040, is investing heavily in electric delivery vans.

Electrification as a Solution

More fuel-efficient fleets are an important part of achieving CO2 reductions. If tractor trailers and other trucks used battery power or fuel cells to replace all or part of the diesel fuel they use, one result would be improved air quality. Nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide produced by exhaust contribute heavily to air pollution, which has been blamed for up to 8.8 million premature deaths each year. Lower fuel costs and enhancement of fleet owners’ reputations as “green” companies would be additional benefits. Electric vehicles even offer reduced maintenance, compared to internal combustion engines.

Almost all truck manufacturers are developing zero-emission models. In some countries, substantial incentives are available. The U.S. federal government subsidizes electric cars with a $7,500 consumer tax break for the first 200,000 vehicles an automaker sells, states Reuters.

Some states add incentives on top of the federal tax credit. Colorado, for example, grants tax credits for light- to heavy-duty trucks that run from $7,000 to $20,000. According to FleetCarma, Norway exempts electric vehicles from acquisition taxes and value-added taxes (not to mention waiving many fees for EVs); China offers many exemptions from taxes at the national level and local and regional authorities can complement these within the limit of 50 percent of the central subsidies. China also has also invested more heavily than most countries in charging infrastructure, although the Netherlands, UK and Germany are making great strides in installing charging points, as well.

Click here to read part two in this series navigating the complexities and challenges of electrifying medium and heavy-duty trucks. To learn more about electrification, visit our content hub for more resources.

Jessica Sundberg

Jessica is a Senior Marketing Specialist at Parker LORD focused on researching trends in Electrification. She is focused on thermal management materials and structural adhesives and how they play into safety, improved performance and reliability, and light weighting of electric vehicles.

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