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There are many routes to sustainable trucking — the industry needs all of them

Truck route, conceptual

Mike Roeth describes trucking’s current transition to more sustainable operations as "the messy middle."

As executive director of the North American Council for Freight Efficiency and truck operations leader at Rocky Mountain Institute, Roeth sees the multitudes of opportunities created by new technologies, as well as the many barriers to the trucking industry’s sustainability goals.

New innovations are coming out every week, Roeth noted last week during GreenBiz’s Real-life Lessons for Trucking's Clean Future webcast. But the ability to leverage those new technologies in the way the trucking industry needs requires a lot of investment and time. 

For example, electric vehicles are a great step but the hurdle is the charging infrastructure, professional Hirschbach driver John Vesey pointed out.  

"My biggest worry is getting to that fuel source and making sure that fuel source is available," he said during the same webcast. "In all reality, as long as the infrastructure is there, I’m all for using new fuel sources. Diesel is stinky."

Andreas Lips, CEO of Greenlots, is working on that exact issue. The company is part of the Shell Group, and with its scale hopes it can relieve driver anxiety over charging and make electric fleets more attainable.

My biggest worry is getting to that fuel source and making sure that fuel source is available.

"It’s all about making it easier for drivers to switch to an EV," Lips said. "Many people haven’t made the switch and reasons are price and range anxiety. There has been a lot of progress made on price, and our role is helping on that range anxiety at scale."

But once the charging infrastructure is in place, the companies will need software to keep stations from overwhelming the grid. Logistics giant UPS uses a system that controls the flow of electrons, diverting power from fully charged trucks to those with partially or fully depleted batteries. 

As encouraging as that sounds, Patrick Browne, director of global sustainability at UPS, and Laurie Counsel, global environmental relations director at Cummins, emphasized during the webcast that going fully electric isn’t an option for most fleets.

"It’s going to be a poly-fuel future," Browne said. 

Trucking is a high energy process, with nine miles to the gallon considered a good MPG range. The industry plans on using natural gas, renewable natural gas and electricity as options. But the power density of diesel makes it hard to give up, the speakers said.

"All of it is on the table," Counsel said. "It is not an abandonment of diesel but a full recognition that it will be a complement to diverse energy solutions." 

The trucking industry will need to match the right technology to the right use-case. For example, UPS has partnered with U.K.-based electric vehicle startup Arrival to buy 10,000 medium-duty electric models for a portion of the brown package delivery trucks that most of us see in our neighborhoods. 

Many people haven’t made the switch and reasons are price and range anxiety. There has been a lot of progress made on price, and our role is helping on that range anxiety at scale.

Those vehicles typically travel shorter local routes and have better access to charging resources, so going electric is more feasible. For long-haul trucking, UPS has invested in renewable natural gas. 

Last year, UPS used 94 million gallons of natural gas; 24 million gallons were from renewable sources. The company is on track to boost its renewable gas consumption to 50 percent of the total by the end of 2020, and in places such as California that have tax incentives, its natural gas-enabled fleet already has reached 100 percent renewable.  

According to the speakers on the webcast, the pressure to go sustainable is coming from customers and investors. And with government policies on their side, such as California’s new rule that by 2045 new trucks must be zero emissions, the trucking industry will slowly inch towards a new future. 

"All these stakeholders are coming together," Counsel said. "By trying out new technology and being willing to move from older models, we can be part of a big solution for our planet."

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