Such a network for freight trucks could be the linchpin to transform the transportation of goods in ways that reduce pollution and the carbon emissions that underlie climate change. The findings suggest that private industry and policymakers stand to gain from creating such a network to leverage the next generation of battery technology, which promise to radically cut emissions from vehicles, and to eventually be more economically efficient than current diesel trucks.

 Achieving the aims of the Paris Agreement will require reducing the emissions from heavy transportation trucks, which generate roughly 7 percent of global carbon. The idea that battery-powered freight trucks could replace diesel vehicles has often been dismissed as unrealistic, largely because of the belief that the trucks would lack the needed range, and that the batteries would be too costly.

New SEI research suggests that this view is out of date – and is soon to be upended by technological progress.

“A tipping point is in sight for electric trucks. Battery technology is very close to a threshold that makes electric trucks feasible and economically competitive. All that is missing is one companion component: fast charging. Now the focus needs to be on infrastructure to make quick charging possible. Electric trucks need the same sort of fast charging that is becoming widely available for personal electric cars. If this infrastructure is put in place, it invalidates the old argument that electric trucks can’t match the range of diesel trucks. This makes electric trucks much more realistic.”

— Björn Nykvist lead author and senior researcher at SEI.

The study shows that the availability of fast, high-capacity charging is a key for progress. Having such fast and powerful charging options available means that the batteries on the trucks can be kept relatively small and light. This solves a basic conceptual problem – the idea that the batteries would be so bulky and heavy that they would limit the amount of goods that the trucks could carry. This breakthrough significantly reduces costs. The combination of the efficiency of electric motors, the higher load capacity of heavy trucks, and larger potential for fuel savings of heavy trucks, enables battery-powered transport trucks to become more economically efficient than their diesel counterparts. When scaled up with a charging network, the use of such trucks could cut emissions, and they could be less expensive to operate.

“Our model shows that electric trucks can soon be economically competitive. That should be an incentive to the private sector and policymakers alike to start focusing on making sure that fast charging infrastructure is available. In many settings, electric freight trucks can play an important role in reducing emissions from heavy transport.”

— Olle Olsson, co-author and senior researcher at SEI.

The study urges shifting focus away from dated views about the limitations of batteries, and toward the mission of creating charging networks that can take advantage of technologies that are on the horizon. Industry stands to gain from such changes, which will allow the transportation sector to become less polluting and more economically efficient.

The sector is important in the climate change mission. The transportation sector generates roughly a quarter of global CO2 emissions. Within the sector, emissions heavy trucks accounts for roughly a third of all emissions – more than double those of the aviation sector.

Highlights

  • Current battery technology is close to a threshold that makes electric trucks feasible and commercially competitive.
  • Fast charging is important and significantly improves the economic competitiveness of heavy trucks powered by electric battery packs.
  • Previous conclusions about the likely limitations of heavy electric trucks were based on battery performance that has since improved – and continues to improve.
  • Heavy trucks can become competitive with diesel trucks.
  • The combination of efficient electric motors, the higher load capacity of heavy trucks, and larger potential for fuel savings of heavy trucks benefit battery-powered trucks.

Technical information

The authors use a model that evaluates costs, energy use, and battery pack weight. It compares how these factors influence load capacity and costs, and then compares the results with those of a conventional, fully loaded diesel truck. Results are based on the scenario that fast charging enables trucks that on average travel a maximum of 4.5 hours before recharging, mirroring EU regulations on driving times before rests are needed. To make the model more representative of global conditions, it penalizes electric trucks with extra salary and capital costs for the idle time when charging. The analysis covers trucks of 10 to 100 tonnes GVW. The findings show that the electric-powered battery-driven trucks become cost competitive both per kilometer and per ton-kilometer.