How low can you go?

10 Apr 2019 | Matt Joy

‘By getting a fleet manager to convert to a zero-carbon solution, you get a decision that is up to 1,500 times more effective than one person changing their passenger car’.

Experts in the commercial, heavy goods vehicles and off-highway sectors came together to discuss the challenges and opportunities from decarbonisation in the Advanced Propulsion Centre’s ‘How Low Can You Go?’ seminar, part of the Future of Technology Series.

Climate goals clashed with the realities of commercial vehicle needs as speakers engaged in heated debate on the future of commercial vehicles. If you missed the debate you can watch the talks here.

The goal to achieve zero-carbon output in the transport sector is in danger of being missed as the financial pressures of the commercial vehicle sector push against progress and innovation, according to key industry figures speaking at the event in London on the 3rd April 2019.

Baroness Brown of Cambridge from the Committee on Climate Change, the first speaker in a packed programme, expressed dismay that the current efforts by manufacturers and fleet operators are insufficient to meet the global target of keeping temperature increase below 1.5 degrees, “I do think we need to take more of a look at the overall picture, and yes there are some very good interim solutions, but actually where we need to be between 2050 and 2060 is somewhere quite radically different. This desire..that there will be plenty of liquid fuels around that we can use – we are travelling in hope if we think that’s going to be the situation and we’re going to meet the 1.5-degree target.”

During her initial remarks, Baroness Brown explained that other industries such as power and waste had decreased emissions in recent years but that the transport industry had remained largely static over the same period: “Transport is now the largest contributor of greenhouse gases and mainly CO2. We’ve seen massive reductions since 1990 in our power sector emissions, we’ve seen hugely impressive reductions in our waste emissions, and yet our transport emissions are pretty much the same as they were in 1990. The only one that’s been increasing is transport, and that’s not good news.”

Baroness Brown also suggested that all areas of the transport industry should be looking for ways to increase efficiency and reduce emissions, and not just rely on advances in vehicle technology and alternative fuels to drive this change, saying: “There must be some benefits available from improving logistics. We hear a lot about urban consolidation centres, maybe we need to re-think just-in-time; JIT is a way of adding to traffic and to miles. All these lovely stories about Amazon sending you a toothbrush in a wardrobe-sized box – maybe the logistics companies will get round to the fact that they will have to share their precious data so that we can make sure lorries are full. Maybe that actually drones could be doing all this for us and effectively electrifying our transport.”

Oriel Badia, CEO of Malloy Aeronautics, expanded on Baroness Brown’s points by sharing the progress of the company, already well-known for having created the first hoverbike. With a clear mission to create new solutions to the problem of moving goods and people using drones, Oriel explained the benefits of the technology and the parallels with road transport: “They can go from A to B over any obstacles; they are safe, low maintenance, low cost of operation and scalable – you can send one or 100 with no extra manpower. There are many challenges – battery technology, regulation, ground infrastructure – but the key point is we need to test as much as we can to make these things as useful as we can for the end user.”

A lively panel discussion with Dr. Robert Morgan of TPS Thermal Efficiency Spoke, Peter Harris, Director of Sustainability Europe for UPS, Christoph Domke, Director of Mobility 2030 for KPMG UK and Guy Blundell, Engineering Manager for Caterpillar UK, laid out the transition from where the industry is today to a truly low-emission landscape.

Dr. Morgan made the point that the current energy cycle produces a great deal of methane, which is more harmful than CO2, but that capturing this waste and reusing it has potential benefits, “If we can take that methane and turn it back into a fuel and feed it back into our system then we will emit CO2, but we have reduced at least by an order of magnitude the impact that it will have on the planet. What we end up with is a reduction in energy input…and also reduced greenhouse gas output which becomes carbon-negative.”

Peter Harris explained that because UPS uses a substantial range of vehicles over a wide variety of duty cycles, electrification makes the most sense in the urban space, but that for long-haul vehicles natural gas options are currently the only viable alternative. Christoph Domke of KPMG analysed that because fuel and driver costs account for 65% of total transport costs, connected fleet management and autonomous solutions will bring reduced vehicle miles and more efficient operation with subsequent benefits for emissions regardless of the fuel used.

In the impassioned discussion that followed Guy Blundell of Caterpillar made the point that sensible solutions were required to take the industry from where it is today through to 2050: “There will be some IC engines, there will be a mix. It’s fine to say we’re currently taking carbon out of the electricity grid – we’ve taken the coal out which is an easy thing to do. We talk about an energy grid – it’s not an energy grid, it’s a power grid, that’s the most important thing, adding wind and solar when you can’t control them doesn’t solve the problem.”

Professor Colin Garner of the Applied Thermodynamics Department at the University of Loughborough, in his talk ‘Heavy Duty Powertrains: What is the best energy source?’, set out the comparison between internal combustion engines versus current and predicted future battery-powered commercial vehicles. He highlighted that the IC engines still have a role to play until battery technology can compete with the energy density and cost of a fuel tank. “If you go for a 44-tonne Mercedes Actros, that has a 1420 litre fuel tank; the [equivalent] cell mass for a 2035 battery would be about 9 tonnes, and for now it’s about 18 tonnes just for the cells – so you’re going to be about 25-30 tonnes of vehicle being a large proportion of the 44-tonne limit.” The cost analysis provided by Professor Garner also offered a stark contrast, with an equivalent battery cell cost of £167,290 pounds for predicted 2035 specifications and an eye-watering £468,413 today.

The final panel discussion brought together a diverse collection of speakers who highlighted the progress in particular sectors as well as the unique challenges that the industry faces. Neil Corcoran, Engineering and Technical Manager for Babcock showcased the complex issues faced by the London Fire Brigade in meeting emissions targets without hurting the response times and technical capabilities of appliances. In contrast Tanya Neech, Sustainable Solutions Manager for Scania, showed that there are close to 200 biogas buses currently in use in the UK yet that 95% of all global organic waste goes to landfill. This gives a significant opportunity to reduce greenhouse gases in the passenger service vehicle sector, and that smart vehicle technology has a big part to play too.

Exploring another means of tackling the challenges of electrification meeting the needs of the commercial vehicle industry, David Thackray, Director of Marketing for Tevva Motors made a case for the range extender as the most viable solution for rigid trucks, which make up 60% of the UK’s HGVs: “Road transport is the low-hanging fruit. Your average truck burns 11,000 litres of fuel a year, and your average fleet manager may well control hundreds of vehicles. So if you can get a fleet manager to convert across to a zero-carbon solution you get a decision that is up to 1,500 times more effective at moving the needle than if you get one person changing their passenger car.”

Luke Gear, Technology Analyst at IDTechEX, explained how other areas of freight transport are trialling alternative fuels and electrification and the impact this could have on global emissions: “According to The Economist, by burning heavy fuel oil just 15 of the biggest ships emit more of the noxious oxides of nitrogen and sulphur than all the world’s cars put together. Long-haul, ocean-crossing vessels such as tankers and container ships – this is an equivalent to aviation or long-haul trucking – the technology doesn’t really exist to have these go purely electric but you can replace some of their diesel engines with a battery for peak shaving. Batteries aren’t the same in shipping as they are in cars; they need to be more rugged and safety is a high priority. But the maritime sector’s ability to take advantage of economies of scale of other industries like the car industry that has really helped its uptake over the last few years.”

Andy Eastlake, Managing Director of LowCVP and compere for the event, summarised the day and the overarching goal, saying: “The key thing is the more we can do now, the easier the long-term trajectory is. Commercial vehicles are all about operation, they are tools to do a job and we have to sweat those assets.”

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