The world is in the midst of a global warming crisis, with numerous news outlets proclaiming that 2023 will be one of the hottest years on record, causing untold environmental damage.
Private sectors, stakeholders, and governing bodies are looking to reduce the use of plastics, find clean alternatives to power generation, reduce clean energy costs, and reexamine land use to combat greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
While these decarbonization efforts are amicable, they neglect one of the biggest pollutants in the world, which is freight transportation. Transportation is the most heavily reliant sector on fossil fuels, accounting for 29% of CO2 admissions.
In this blog, we will explore the impact of global warming on the ecosystem, understand the complications surrounding the electrification of road freight, and examine some of the newest innovations making this difficult task possible in the near future.
The pace of global warming is accelerating, and the scale of the impact is devastating. The time for action is limited – we are approaching a tipping point beyond which the opportunity to reverse the damage of CO2 emissions will disappear.
Eliot Spitzer, former Governor of New York
The importance of decarbonisation
This concern for carbon emission levels and their effects on the environment is shared with 54% of the world population. Yet these evident fears have done little to avoid the escalation of these troublesome issues.
In 2022, an estimated 37.4 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide was emitted into the ozone. This is a 0.9% increase from 2021, which means that CO2 levels have reached a new record high.
While the majority of the world population understands the basic principle that these greenhouse gas emissions are causing climate change, many fail to realise the severity that this implication poses. Some of the disastrous consequences of GHG emissions are:
Glaciers: Glaciers are melting rapidly due to the rise in temperature; Antarctica and Greenland lose an average ice mass of 150 billion and 270 billion tons per year, respectively.
Large-scale flooding: Since 2020, the sea level has risen by an unbelievable 10mm. While this sounds like a rather insignificant amount, if this trajectory continues, over 900 million individuals living near coastal settlements will be drastically affected.
Hurricanes: As water temperature rises, so will the intensity and frequency of hurricanes as these devastating events only form over water at 26.51 ºC.
Wildfires: These horrific natural disasters are set to rise by a shocking 30% by 2050 due to global warming.
Droughts: Water shortages will affect an outstanding ¾ of the world’s population forcing 216 million inhabitants to flee their homes.
Ecosystems: By 2070, more than one-third of all plant and animal species could face extinction from the effects of greenhouse gas emissions.
Health: Pandemics will become more commonplace as tropical diseases will be able to have a much wider geographical spread due to warming climates. In 2022, 65 cases of dengue fever, a disease found in tropical regions, were found in France. The rise in temperature will also cause animals and humans to interact more, escalating the chances of new diseases to emerge.
Food shortages: Due to extreme weather conditions, the cultivation of both maize and wheat will decline drastically. This will have disastrous consequences on global food security as wheat provides 20% of the world’s calorie intake.
This endless list of horrific consequences of global warming has caused governments and scientists to find cost-effective solutions to minimize global emissions and become carbon neutral.
The Department of Energy has outlined a roadmap with four distinct pillars to secure emission reductions and eventually reach a net zero emission rate. These decarbonization pillars are:
Energy efficiency: This is the idea of using less energy to perform the same task or achieve the same result.
Industrial electrification: Utilizing clean energy from the electrical grid and renewable energy systems to improve the industrial sector sustainability.
Low-carbon fuels, feedstocks, and energy sources: Identifying low-carbon alternatives for fuel and feedstocks, including using biofuels, biomass, hydrogen fuel cells, or renewable sources.
Carbon capture, utilization, and storage: This is the process of capturing CO2 and using it to create new materials or store it indefinitely.
The impact of road freight on the ozone
The freight transportation sector, worth an estimated $8.6 trillion, has a massive impact on the global economy. In the USA alone, 55.2 million metric tons of freight, worth an estimated $54 billion, are transported daily.
However, the greatest impact this sector has on the world is undeniably its effect on the environment. Unbelievably, the freight industry is responsible for 8% of all global greenhouse gasses.
The methods of transportation for freight are divided into four categories:
It is estimated that three-quarters of all freight is carried by sea, however, their ability to move immense amounts of cargo in a single voyage makes them incredibly carbon efficient.
It is road transportation like vans and trucks that produces the vast majority of freight emissions, an estimated 65% equating to 2.2 billion tonnes of CO2. This mode of transportation can produce a hundred times more CO2 than a boat carrying the same amount of cargo at a similar distance.
|Country||Carbon footprint ranking||Road freight usage ranking|
|Saudi Arabia||9||Not ranked|
Freight transportation must be transformed to hit net-zero targets… However, and especially for HGVs required for freight transport, EVs have limitations – volume and weight of electric batteries, availability of certain raw materials needed to manufacture them, and tensions when trying to replace internal combustion engine vehicles for electric ones globally. That’s a big challenge.
Alejandro Gutierrez-Alcoba, researcher from the University of Edinburgh Business School
The challenges facing electrifying road freight
It is undeniable that transitioning road freight from fossil fuel-guzzling machines to eco-friendly electric vehicles is a necessary decarbonization strategy. However, to electrify road freight, providers must tackle the following pressing challenges:
1. Charging infrastructure
There are currently 2.3 million charging stations for EVs across the entire globe. However, there are an estimated 335 million commercial vehicles in the world. These electronic vehicles would have at least three charging needs, which are:
Depot: This charge would come from the depot center.
Destination: This type would be found within distribution centers.
Public: These would be found along highways and in urban areas.
These combined factors show a distinct lack of viable infrastructure to support the enormous fleets of freight vehicles.
2. Charging times
To fully charge an electric truck, it can take between 8 to 10 hours which is a lot of wasted time and money when delivering freight.
3. Cost of installation
Installing charging stations is often an incredible financial burden; check out the below breakdown of pricing:
Infrastructure: $12,000 to $15,000
Equipment: $600 to $40,000
Software: $28 per month for each port
Additional soft costs: Branding ($1,500), protective bollards ($400 each), and parking blocks ($600 each)
Diesel trucks can travel up to 1,000 miles without needing to refuel. This has allowed the average road freight driver to travel approximately 500 miles in an eight-hour day without major delays. Unfortunately, most electric vehicles are not designed for long-distance driving, with an average range between 150 to 300 miles.
5. Vehicle cost
The average diesel semi-truck will cost about $150,000 and $100,000 used. While solid information on the value of e-trucks is hard to define, a recent purchase made by the Port of Oakland translated to $510,000 per truck. This astronomical cost will be too much of an investment for many freight operators.
Current legislation means that a truck must legally weigh under 80,000lbs. However, estimates suggest that an electronic battery could weigh an unbelievable 16,000lbs meaning that e-trucks could outweigh their diesel counterparts by 5,000lbs. This excess weight means a lesser capacity for cargo resulting in smaller profit margins.
Developments in electric road freight
A recent study found that by 2035, all e-trucks will be both cheaper and more capable than their diesel counterparts.
Countless innovators across the EV supply chain are attempting to develop new technology and strategies to overcome these evident obstacles in the electrification of road freight. Here is our selection of some of the most promising advancements.
There are numerous incentive schemes to promote the adoption of e-trucks, including:
Inflation Reduction Act: Freight operators can claim up to $40,000 in tax credits for each electric vehicle exceeding 14,000lbs.
Clean Heavy Duty Program: $1 billion worth of funds to help firms electrify heavy-duty fleets.
Installation tax credit: There is a 30% tax credit for alternative fuelling infrastructure installation until 2032.
Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act: This dictates that states must build charging stations every fifty miles along fuel corridors.
Advanced Clean Truck Act: Five states have adopted this legislation that enforces that manufacturers must increase e-trucks sales by 75%.
This method of powering electric freight vehicles involves using overhead conductive contact lines, called a catenary, on highways to emit a charge to a current collector, known as a pantograph, installed onto trucks.
While this may sound like science fiction, in 2017 the first eHighway was commissioned in Germany to electrify a 10km stretch of autobahn. It is estimated that if 30% of German freight used this system, carbon emissions would be reduced by 7,000,000 tonnes.
This technology is also incredibly energy efficient, with current estimates suggesting that 96% of all electricity is transferred from the grid to the vehicle.
However, there are some distinct disadvantages to this form of electrification. Firstly, the conductive lines are an undeniable eyesore that will most likely, much like the use of wind turbines, stir controversy. A more pressing concern is the danger damaged live wires could pose during adverse weather conditions.
In this groundbreaking approach to electrification, the road itself generates a magnetic field using an alternative current transfer and a conductor. This energy is then converted into electric current via a vehicle with an inductive pickup.
This technology has already been implemented in Visby, Sweden, where buses are powered by the wireless charging infrastructure underneath the roads. One incredible benefit of this charging technique is that there is no wear from vehicle contact or weather conditions meaning that little maintenance is needed.
While this technology is truly revolutionary, there are some distinct disadvantages to this type of electrification model:
Electromagnetic: There are some concerns about the harmful effect the magnetic field could possibly have on humans and electronics.
Efficiency: The energy efficiency of these e-roads is less impressive than contact lines; this is due to factors such as air gap and vehicle alignment. One study suggests that an optimised air gap of between 15 to 20cm would produce a transfer efficiency of 80 to 85%.
Damage: With vehicles having to be so close to the road to generate the optimal amount of energy, there is a risk of damage due to potholes, uneven terrain, and debris.
Expense: These types of roads are incredibly costly at about $5,000,000 per two-way kilometre of road.
The final solution to electrification woes surrounding road freight is the use of rails installed into the roads, similar to tram tracks. This rail would be segmented, and each section would become activated when a compatible vehicle with a smart pickup device installed drives across it.
There has already been a fantastic success with this type of charging infrastructure on a 10km stretch of road nearby Arlanda airport in Stockholm.
As with other forms of e-truck charging, there are numerous disadvantages and advantages, which are discussed in the following table:
|Cars are able to use this technology as there is no minimum height requirement||Danger of human electrocution|
|Minimal visual impact on the surrounding area||Debris can affect conductivity|
|Cheaper alternative that costs between $250,000 and $1 million||More prone to wear from weather conditions|
|Energy efficiency of about 95%||The infrastructure will need to be continuously maintained|
Are electronic EVs the solution to freight decarbonisation?
In their current state, the answer is simply no. There are far too many restraints and complications that make this solution unviable. However, with advancements continuously occurring across the world, in the near future, we will most likely see entire fleets of electronic road freight delivering goods both short and long distances.
However, to fully optimise the decarbonising process, it remains essential to reassess the entirety of the freight industry, including transportation by both sea and air.