Can electric trucks drive heavy haulage into the 21st century?

BERLIN: Heavy road haulage is the backbone of economic activity in any country and the sector is currently going through a major transformation.

Emission-free trucks powered by batteries have arrived amid a clamour from fans keen to save the environment from diesel fumes. Many truck operators have however raised concerns about their everyday capabilities.

So can these lorries deliver on their promises? Let's take a closer look at the viability of battery-powered trucks and examine the facts and myths surrounding these kinds of vehicles.

Diesel lorries in particular are still transporting most goods across the country in European countries. Take Germany for instance: According to the Federal Motor Transport Authority (KBA), only 18,300 of the 254,000 newly registered lorries in Germany last year were fully electric.

The lion's share, just over 220,000, were diesel lorries. The German Road Haulage, Logistics and Disposal Association (BGL) reports that of the almost 800,000 trucks over 7.5 tonnes that roll through Germany every day, just 400 vehicles were battery-electric in August last year, namely just 0.05% of the daily fleet.

This is now set to change. All the established lorry manufacturers are planning or already offering an electric alternative, with Scania, MAN, Volvo or Renault among them. The battery-powered trucks not only promise to be more climate-friendly, but also to achieve greater ranges - a major point of criticism for a long time.

According to Julia Heil, Head of Energy Transition at logistic company Maersk, trucking is around 10 years behind passenger cars in terms of electrification. Heil said the technology is already in place, but a number of factors needs to develop in order for electric trucking to be a viable alternative to fossil-fuel powered trucks.

"The greatest challenge for the electrification of trucks is cost. Currently electric truck-solutions are not economically comparable to diesel-fuelled trucks," said Heil on the company's website.

2024-02-13 00_12_13-dpa news _ Photos ( Release 2.17.7 ) - Brave

Over in North America, Tesla has keen to make electric trucking sexy and is heralding the future of lorry transport with the Tesla Semi Truck. In true Tesla style, the Semi Truck has a futuristic look.

Tesla wants nothing less than to revolutionize truck traffic and the Semi Truck is the vehicle that Tesla is fielding in the battle for market power in the electric transport sector. The term Semi Truck refers to the combination of tractor and trailer known in other countries as an articulated truck.

Like Tesla's Cybertruck pick-up, the Semi also looks like it comes from the future. The electric monster has also been designed outside the box.

Company boss Elon Musk rolled what he described as a "beast" into the limelight for the first time in November 2017, when he presented Tesla's latest project using two prototypes. However, Musk was unable to meet the production launch date of 2019 announced at the time. Tesla later postponed again until 2021 and it took until December 2022 before the Tesla product was ready to roll.

According to Musk, the delay in the start of production was due to the truck's battery equipment, namely the originally insufficient energy density of the batteries and their excess weight.

Tesla wants to have 50,000 semi trucks rolling off the production line in the USA as early as 2024. This would catapult the company to the top of the country's largest truck manufacturers.

Back in Europe, 500 kilometres without intermediate charging is now possible with new truck models. This was shown by the Mercedes-Benz eActros 600 with a battery capacity of 600 kilowatt hours when it drove 530 kilometres across the Alps on a single charge. This makes it possible to drive for 4.5 hours before the need to recharge the truck during a 45-minute break.

Dutch commercial vehicle manufacturer DAF also offers an electric model with a range of 500 kilometres, which means that after a mere 45 minutes of charging, a range of 1,000 kilometres would be possible every day.

However, not everyone can keep up with the 500 kilometres. Sweden's Scania offers an electric truck with a range of just 350 kilometres between charges. Munich-based MAN, on the other hand, is planning to go into series production with its electric truck from 2025. The vehicle should manage 400 kilometres on a single charge.

This means that electric lorries will have caught up with diesel in terms of range. However, the differences to their diesel counterparts are still striking. For example, a fully fuelled diesel truck can cover distances of between 600 and more than 1,000 kilometres - with a refuelling time of 15 minutes. Depending on the tank size and payload, even more than 4,000 kilometres are possible.

In a study published last year, the auditing firm PwC said battery-powered commercial vehicles could dominate the lorry market in a few years' time but not for another decade or so.

This was assuming that the prices for electric trucks will be 30% cheaper than diesel trucks in terms of total costs by 2030. Rising CO2 taxes, higher diesel costs, lower maintenance costs and falling battery costs could all contribute to this trend.

The auditing firm assumes that one in three new trucks in Europe, North America and China will be electric by the early 2030s, with the proportion of new registrations rising to over 70% by 2035.

However, for the time being electric lorries are more like rolling prototypes, says Simon Brück from the DSLV haulage and logistics federation in Germany. He too believes the electrification of lorries will only be achieved on a broad scale in the next decade.
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