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How we can stop missing the boat on big trucks

Public and private actions must align strategically if we hope to catalyze the zero-emissions segment for heavy-duty trucks.

Truck wheel blur

With an eye toward COP26 in November and possible new global action to address climate change, nations as well as the private sector are setting commitments to shrink their carbon emissions. Governments are doing everything from growing renewable energy resources to creating carbon credit trading programs to cutting deforestation to improving energy efficiency. Missing from many public action plans, however, are strategic policies, programs and efforts to develop public-private partnerships aimed at reducing emissions from big trucks. That’s a big mistake.

Representing less than 4 percent of the global on-road fleet, trucks are responsible for about 27 percent of global on-road fuel and greenhouse gas emissions. They are also responsible for more than 60 percent of on-road nitrogen oxides (NOx), which can cause decreased lung function and exacerbate dangerous respiratory ailments. Disadvantaged communities and communities of color feel the worst impacts from these big polluters, because they often live near freight centers and corridors. Big trucks seem a necessary target for an overhaul — both in terms of regulations and incentives — so why are nations neglecting this critical sector?

Many fear big trucks are too challenging to decarbonize, but those fears are based on outdated information according to new data and analysis from CALSTART. Just a few years ago, the data on big zero-emission heavy-duty trucks (ZE-HDTs) told a much different story — one of higher costs and limited ranges — than it tells today.

The reality is that the biggest zero-emission ZE-HDTs are hitting the market at an accelerating rate. According to the Zero-Emission Technology Inventory (ZETI), part of the CALSTART Drive to Zero program, the number of available and announced models of new ZE-HDTs is expected to grow from 40 to 71 in the United States, Canada, China and Europe between 2020 and 2023. That’s a nearly 80 percent increase over just three years. During that period, the number of ZE commercial vehicles on the market in these same regions is expected to grow nearly 30 percent, with 468 models on the market in 2020 and 606 models projected for 2023.

ZeroEmissions Sales


Heavy duty trucks


Range is also accelerating quickly. According to a peer-reviewed study, it is already sufficient to meet fleet needs for urban deliveries, drayage and other operations that do not require extreme ranges. Most available ZE-HDTs are already capable of driving 175 miles on a single charge. Based on current manufacturer announcements, ZE-HDTs capable of longer distances (350 miles) will be available later this year and 2022. Those with higher ranges (600 miles) will be available after 2023.

Duty cycles

Battery prices, though still a concern, are decreasing faster than even the most optimistic projections. Using a recent analysis, we concluded that by 2025-2030 electric trucks will be less expensive to own and operate than their diesel counterparts due to the reduced cost of key components such as batteries and motors, higher energy efficiency and lower maintenance costs. As battery costs dip, rising and less predictable diesel fuel costs will also accelerate cost parity between electric and diesel trucks.

In many cases, fleet managers are taking notice of the true picture of the ZE-HDT segment much faster than governments. IKEA plans to reach 100 percent zero-emission home deliveries by 2025. Logistics giant DHL will invest $8.26 billion by 2030 to cut emissions through various strategies including electrifying 60 percent of its fleet. Amazon plans to achieve net-zero operations by 2040. These are just a few examples of fleet operations demonstrating they are confident that zero-emission trucks today and in the very near-term future can meet their transport needs.

Despite these ambitious fleet goals, infrastructure availability, installation and costs remain barriers toward faster adoption of ZE-HDTs. To break down these barriers, governments, working collaboratively with fleets and manufacturers, must create strategic policy, incentive and programmatic ecosystems to grow the ZE-HDT segment.

The public sector must both incentivize the development of ZE infrastructure that serves various applications while also adopting policies that require manufacturers, fleets and utilities to create a robust market for ZE-HDTs and infrastructure. Fleet managers can do their part by continuing to set ambitious electrification targets and by being a strong voice for policies that encourage zero-emission truck manufacturing as well as infrastructure. Fleet innovators should lobby aggressively for incentives to grow their zero-emission truck fleets faster, smarter and at a lower cost.

As a first step toward global coordinated goals and policies for ZE-HDTs and infrastructure, the Drive to Zero initiative recently announced it is co-leading bilateral talks with the Netherlands to create a global memorandum of understanding (MoU) aiming to reach 100 percent zero-emission medium- and heavy-duty vehicle (ZE-MHDV) sales between 2040 and 2050. At the 12th annual meeting of the Clean Energy Ministerial, Austria, Canada, Chile, Germany, Greece, Netherlands, Norway and Sweden signaled their support for the MoU process. They noted that growing the ZE-MHDV sector is crucial to reaching collective Paris Agreement climate goals. Many participants noted that public/private partnerships are critical to creating the ecosystems to enable nations to reach such an ambitious goal.

As nations set their sights toward COP26 and a possible new global vision for a cleaner future, they must not neglect ZE-HDTs. Public and private actions must align strategically if we hope to catalyze the ZE-HDT segment. These vehicles are further along in the commercialization process than most realize. Model availability and range are on the rise and costs are coming down faster than expected. Let’s put these trucks to work now — not later — and enjoy the benefits of a transport sector that is driving to zero.

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