At COP27 in Egypt last week, visitors may have spotted a significant gap in the agenda. For all the space set aside for “solutions” and energy talks, and for all the public transport NGOs listed as attendees, the summit failed to include a dedicated Transport Day on its timetable.
This absence is stark, not least because electrification of vehicles – and getting polluting petrol and diesel engines off the road – is a transition almost every nation can agree on. How to make that transition is far less clear.
Slowly but surely, we are becoming a nation of electric car owners. The UK is home to around 450,000 of them, not including an estimated 775,000 plug-in hybrids – but you don’t need the figures to recognise the increasing number of Teslas dotted along our city roads, or the drop in noise pollution.
Once seen as a novelty second-car option, plans to phase out older cars from cities – London’s Ultra-Low Emission Zone will include all of Greater London from 2023 – mean EVs are fast becoming a necessity for many households. Indeed, our willingness to adopt them is a key factor in the government’s Net Zero strategy.
Unlike public transport and private cars, electrification of HGVs is not a subject we tend to hear about. But it’s an area with huge potential for improvement: analysis by the Energy Technologies Institute suggests that transitioning just one 44 tonne HGV today would be the equivalent of removing 30 traditional fuel engine cars from the road.
In 2019, HGVs produced 19.5 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, according to Department for Transport figures. To put that into perspective, each metric ton would fill a sphere almost 10 metres in diameter. The same figures show that while HGVs make up a much smaller proportion of the miles travelled on UK roads (5 per cent compared to 79 per cent driven by cars), their emissions are disproportionately greater, mostly on account of smaller vehicles being more fuel efficient.
The good news, according to Chris Smith, director of the Centre for Future Clean Mobility, is that “a lot of progress” is being made in this area of research. “It's just the general public don't necessarily see it, primarily because, well, who is interested in trucks apart from truck drivers and fleet operators? Whereas everyone is interested in the latest Jaguar or Volvo,” he explains.
"In essence, the trucking sector is the tail in the dog of the road car sector,” he says. “If you look at the scale, it's the same manufacturers by and large who operate both markets, but the scale is much bigger for road cars.” By 2030, under the government’s new legislation, consumers will no longer have the option to buy new petrol or diesel cars. After 2035, hybrid-engine vehicles will also start to be outlawed, and Smith predicts that petrol and diesel themselves will be phased out within decades as a result. The same will be true of larger vehicles, which will have to make the shift from diesel – most commonly used by HGVs – whether or not the industry feels ready for it.
Figures published by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders show diesel engines made up just 5.6 per cent of new car sales in April 2022, a fall of 52 per cent on the previous year. The shift is likely influenced by the 2030 ban, but Volvo, the world’s largest manufacturer of trucks, buses and and industrial vehicles, has already announced it will stop making diesel engine HGVs as early as this year.
At any rate, these shifting market priorities mean truck manufacturers “no longer have the luxury of holding onto diesel if they wanted to,” Smith adds, "given that the supply chain for engines fuels, filters – all the stuff you need to make a car go – has changed.”
What's David Beckham got to do with it
Availability of EVs is no longer the issue: the biggest names in truck manufacturing, Volvo, Scania and Siemens, already have a complete offering of electrified trucks ready to buy, all the way up to five-axle, 44-tonne vehicles, "the full monty HGV" as Smith puts it. But the reality is that they are expensive, and not yet as efficient as diesel in getting drivers from A to B.
One company attempting to tackle this cost gap is Lunaz, a vehicle manufacturer start-up based in Silverstone. Founded by entrepreneur David Lorenz in 2018, Lunaz is developing what he believes to be the world’s first Upcycled Electric Vehicle (UEV) – starting with luxury classic cars like Bentleys and Rolls Royces (which attracted high-life investors like David Beckham) and building up to refuse trucks.
The idea behind Lunaz is “to get out of the replace-with-new cycle the automobile sector has become so stuck in.” After working in hospitality for 13 years, Lorenz was inspired to find sustainability solutions after the birth of his daughter, Luna, whom the company is named after. He partnered with engineering experts to brainstorm a solution to “the big question of, what do we do with the two billion vehicles on the road that already exist?”
“In other industries such as rail and aviation it’s very normal to see product life extended – the average age of a British Airways aeroplane is 22 years, and yet we don't need to panic when we get on a plane,” he says. “With road vehicles, we've drawn a line in the sand and said we're now going to clean up traffic, which is fantastic – but there has to be a way to upgrade our vehicles without waste.”
Lorenz and his team started with upcycling smaller luxury cars to make them electric while still retaining their classic features as “a good way in” to the market. But larger vehicles, specifically refuse trucks, “have always been the main focus”.
There are several reasons why. Unlike delivery trucks or personal vehicles, which travel a wide variety of routes on any given week, rubbish trucks travel the same routes on a timetable – which makes them easy to schedule for charging points. There is also the potential for a bigger sustainability impact; their volume is much greater than the number of Rolls Royces sold to individual wealthy owners.
More than this, upcycling refuse trucks also offers Lorenz with a bigger commercial opportunity. Lunaz is currently in talks with Department for Transport advisors as well as local councils and private businesses who want to transition towards electric in the coming years. The first 1,200 upcycled trucks are expected to be available from early 2023, delivered by Lunaz’s new factory.
Making the shift for delivery trucks comes with additional challenges, however.
A diesel-powered delivery HGV might drive a thousand miles in a day with two drivers, stopping only briefly to fill up a tank. Currently, EVs force drivers to stop and recharge every few hours – and this is particularly the case for the size of battery required for larger vehicles – meaning the technology is yet to catch up with demand.
“In many ways, diesel has been ideal fuel for the trucking industry for decades,” says Smith – and many will be reluctant to let go. "There are going to be some painful truths coming for HGV operators, and I understand that because they're going to have to completely change the way they operate," he says.
Is it a tram? Is it a truck?
Research into one possible solution, backed by the UK government, comes from a surprisingly low-tech idea. In July last year, the Department for Transport announced £20 million in funding to accelerate the uptake of zero emission trucks, supporting projects including an electric road system near Scunthorpe that would enable lorries to run on electricity from overhead cables in a similar way to trams.
The idea behind it is that topping up smaller and more practical batteries through catenary cables on the road would make the electrification of lorries cheaper and more obtainable, while also making the vehicles more efficient because the weight of the battery would be smaller.
Cambridge University researchers have completed the first stage of a feasibility study for the plan. The electric road is indeed viable, they conclude, but would require further government investment of around £19 billion.
Infrastructure for EVs is also lacking, certainly in the UK. The biggest problem is getting power to motorway service charging stations, Smith explains. “What really costs the big dollars is getting a big fat copper cable buried in the ground for a few miles from a substation and back… we're just not really there yet,” he admits.
Even in recent months, electric car users have complained of having to use multiple apps and websites to find charging stations during longer journeys – and even when a dock is found, many are reported slow and inefficient, or broken entirely. If the foundations are barely there for the smallest vehicles on the roads, it’s no wonder hauliers are sceptical.
Paul Allera, technical director for the Road Haulage Association, believes it will be small- and medium-sized business owners – third-party subcontractors for bigger supermarket firms, for example – who will suffer as a result of the electric transition in the first instance. “We are probably going to see a lot of them fall by the wayside. These are often family-run companies with around 15 vehicles or less, who can’t necessarily afford the £200,000 cost of replacing a vehicle to start with,” he adds.
There is a Catch-22 aspect to the electric transition, in that the more companies and drivers make the switch, the cheaper and more accessible EVs, on any scale, will become. But it takes a bold – and possibly bigger, wealthier business – to make that first move. “The point is, everyone's doing this in the UK. So any competitive advantage that you might seek to gain by retaining diesel is going to be not allowed because you won't be able to support your diesel fleet,” says Smith.
Ultimately, it will be public pressures and private take-up of EVs which helps to drive the electrification of industrial-size vehicles too. “Everyone’s in the same boat and that's a good thing,” Smith concludes. “There will need to be some changes, but soon there will be enough commercial drivers to create the demand for things to get done.”