Can commercial vehicles in the UK be decarbonised?

01 July 2024

While the UK passenger-car market pushes forward with electrification, the commercial vehicle sector is encountering many different roadblocks. Autovista24 special content editor Phil Curry asks if the sector can benefit from zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) technology.

While the decarbonisation efforts in the UK and Europe are focused on the passenger car market, the commercial vehicle sector is more complex. It is becoming clear that there is no single solution for eliminating carbon emissions among vans and trucks. Despite this, new technologies rely not only on manufacturer developments but government regulation as well.

‘The commercial vehicle industry is very different to that of the passenger car market,’ Jonathan Atkinson, executive director of product strategy at Cummins told the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) International Automotive Summit.

‘There is a wide diversity of models, from small vans to heavy trucks. This in turn covers an almost infinite number of possibilities. There are many different use cases for vehicles, and when it comes to powertrain technology, no one size fits all,’ he added.

Atkinson outlined a big challenge approaching the commercial vehicle market when it comes to decarbonisation, particularly in Europe. From 2030, all CO2 emission levels must be 45% lower than compared to 2019.

Diesel dominates

This range of vehicles and use cases means the industry is still finding its feet when it comes to introducing alternative powertrain technologies. Published in June 2024, SMMT registration figures covering the UK’s light-commercial vehicle (LCV) sector, highlighted a dependence on fossil fuels. Vans and rigids up to six tonnes, pickups and 4x4s, were predominantly powered by diesel.

Whereas the passenger-car market has seen a collapse in diesel powertrain registrations in recent years, the LCV market is more reliant on the fuel. Across the first five months of the year, the diesel market share remained stable at 92.6%. However, the battery-electric vehicle (BEV) share dropped from 5.2% between January and May 2023, to 4.8% in the same period this year.

This highlights the needs of buyers in the commercial vehicle market. There is demand for a technology which provides the benefits of longer distances and faster refuelling. In the heavy-truck sector, the situation is even more severe.

Rates of adoption

The adoption of ZEVs in the commercial market depends on the type of vehicle required. Heavier vehicles face further roadblocks in adopting battery-electric technology which are restraining customer demand.

‘We are just starting to decarbonise the heavy-goods transportation market in the UK. Currently, this sector is around five to 10 years behind with BEVs,’ highlighted Peter Ahrens, managing director of Leyland Trucks.

‘All manufacturers are currently producing battery-powered vehicles. But customers are still very much in an early adopter phase, buying one, two, up to five vehicles at a time to get familiar with the technology. But no one at this point is pulling the trigger to transition their fleets completely to zero-emission technology. We are going to need to see a significant acceleration in demand if we are going to hit targets.’

When it comes to smaller vehicles, the adoption is quicker. However, there are still many barriers to entry that are contributing to the small market share in the first five months of this year.

‘For vans, I think the transition is happening a bit faster, but we are still in the low single digits of market penetration. I think this is also down to the entry price. Businesses cannot afford the 30% to 40% extra cost of a vehicle as they must be able to manage lower margins already,’ commented Bruno Lambert, CEO and co-founder of B-ON.

‘We need to lower this [vehicle] price and we also need to ensure they benefit from the lower energy cost. We often see that a driver who uses an electric van will have to manage the charging themselves, and sometimes they will end up paying more than if there was a sufficient financial system in place for the market.’

Infrastructure is key

The other issue preventing the adoption of ZEVs in the commercial sector is the required charging infrastructure.

‘As an industry, we know what the range of solutions are for decarbonisation. We know electrification will play a big part, as will hydrogen. But we cannot be successful with any of these technologies if there is not an infrastructure to support them,’ added Atkinson.

Another problem will be the strain on the electricity grid, especially for the power required. ‘For the passenger car market, there are more charging points being implemented. However, for CVs, most will be charged together, either on the motorway or in depots. That means a big draw on the grid in single locations.’

‘How the infrastructure works, and where it is placed, must be well designed so that it supports everyone’s logistics operations. If it is in the wrong place, if the driver has to take a detour, that is not going to be feasible from a logistics point of view,’ he continued.

The infrastructure also needs to be cost-effective, especially for larger vehicles with bigger battery capacities that are utilising public points.

‘Customers need to be able to have home or depot charging to make the total cost of ownership (TCO) work for them. If they are using public charging points, then owning a battery-powered van or truck will not be economically viable,’ added Ahrens.

‘We have proven from our data that you can save up to 20% of the overall lifetime cost on the vehicle. This is if you have the charging at the depot and routes that are selected carefully. However, some businesses do not have the grid supply, which means that the investment required will just be too high to go electric,’ continued Lambert.

Hydrogen potential

While hydrogen fuel-cell development in the passenger-car market remains slow, its deployment in the commercial vehicle sector could solve some of the issues that battery-electric technology presents.

With hydrogen, drivers will be able to travel further and refuelling will be faster. Yet, the vehicles would still produce zero emissions. However, while it may play a part in the market of the future, the technology is still in its infancy.

‘The commercial vehicle market is peculiar in terms of powertrain technologies. Electrification is clearly a big part of the answer, but it will not work in all use cases. Longer distances are a good example, and there is also the need to trade off the weight of the batteries against the weight of the payload,’ stated Atkinson.

‘So, we have conventional technologies still in place, but hydrogen has the potential to be part of the solution. From a technology perspective, we are spending a lot on research and development, but it is still in its infancy and will face challenges as it is deployed.’

Atkinson also highlighted that while fuel-cell development continues, there is the ability to push forward research into hydrogen as a fuel. ‘This is something we plan to have commercialised within the decade, and see it as a mid-term step towards hydrogen fuel-cell solutions,’ he added.

EU alignment

For the UK, alignment with EU policies is crucial, Ahrens suggested, especially with trucks entering different countries regularly.

‘You cannot stop all EU vehicles from entering the UK. So, taking hydrogen as an example, if the continent legislates to develop and build an infrastructure, it will create problems in this country, as trucks would have no way of refuelling if we did not commit to the same legislation,’ he stated.

‘We need a close partnership between the government, legislators and the industry to come up with solutions that are technology agnostic. There is such a wide diversity of vehicles, and so many technologies that can help towards decarbonisation, that we cannot exclude any of these solutions, the market needs to find its place,’ added Atkinson.

‘This needs to be aligned and informed by the EU legislation, because the commercial vehicle sector is a small market, and needs the help,’ he concluded.

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