In the wake of increased social and regulatory pressure, the transportation industry is currently undergoing a significant decarbonisation transformation. The International Energy Agency reports that road freight accounts for approximately 9% of CO2 emissions globally. With road freight volumes expected to more than double by 2050, there is an increased sense of urgency for immediate action. The response from the EU and UK can be seen in the growing number of legislation and government incentives aimed at reducing emissions and reaching net zero. In the face of increasing regulatory pressure, businesses need to be proactive in developing strategies to prepare for these changes.

In this article we’ll look at the role that technology and electric vehicles (EV) can play in achieving a net zero future, We’ll explore the recent regulatory changes, current barriers to decarbonisation and what companies can do to prepare for a successful transition to net zero in their road freight operations.

The Regulatory Landscape

As part of the 2021 EU Climate Law, the European Commission has set a target of a 45% reduction in emissions from freight vehicles by 2030 – and 90% by 2040 – when compared with 2019 levels. Similar initiatives are being adopted in the UK, with the Department of Transport announcing a ban on new internal combustion engine (ICE) cars and vans from 2030. While in September 2023 the Prime Minister delayed the ban until 2035 in line with the EU’s framework, companies need to remain alert of the changing regulations and begin planning their transitions to meet legal requirements.

The challenge of net zero in transport

There are many examples of companies working to reduce their carbon emissions relating to transportation, however this task does not come without its challenges. Here are a few of the main obstacles facing the industry and a widespread adoption of EVs:

  • Limited charging infrastructure – The prevalence and distribution of charging points is currently not sufficient to support widespread EV adoption. Currently half of all charging stations are in two countries alone, Germany and the Netherlands. 31% of all the UK’s are concentrated in the Greater London area alone. Significant improvement in infrastructure, particularly in depot locations, is needed to improve accessibility across the road network.
  • National grid limitations – the UK’s electricity network is struggling to cope with the increase in demand from new electricity providers wanting to connect to the network. The Financial Times is reporting that due to the volumes and variability of suppliers, some projects are being met with wait times of up to 13 years. The European Commission estimates over half a trillion euros are required this decade to upgrade Europe’s energy grid.
  • EV range – The range of EVs remains limited in comparison to petrol and diesel counterparts. With ICE trucks able to travel up to 2,000 miles without refuelling, Tesla claims its latest MDV has a range of 500-mile range per single charge. Although sufficient for a variety of purposes and shorter journeys, further advancements are required to support the requirements of long-haul trucking.
  • Battery challenges – The energy density required to power Medium and Heavy-Duty Vehicles (MDVs and HDVs) requires batteries that take up considerable weight and space. These batteries are also expensive to produce with long charge times, some HGV batteries taking up to five hours for a full charge.
  • High cost – While the cost of EVs continues to reduce, they remain at a premium price. This trend looks set to improve over time, but for now EVs remain the more expensive option, particularly when comparing against the second-hand car market.
  • Supply of raw materials – The batteries in electric vehicles require several raw materials including copper, nickel, lithium and cobalt. Mines are expected to struggle to deal with the expected surge in demand over the next decade. The limited supply that is available will have a significant impact on the affordability of electric vehicles.

Current Solutions and Policies

In the face of these and other challenges, governments and companies are actively working on creative solutions to reduce the reliance on the ICE vehicles. This area is emerging as a focal point for technological innovation and investment. Here are some examples:

Immediate actions for businesses:

While the technology for electric passenger vehicles has progressed further than that for MDVs and HDVs, there are still actions available to businesses in those industries to reduce emissions and prepare for the changes ahead:

  • Evaluate your operations – Firstly, a detailed analysis of your current transport operations will create a baseline understanding of your business requirements. This can include profiling of vehicle duty cycles, routing patterns, fuel usage, refuelling and load efficiency. This enhanced understanding will assist in developing your sustainability strategy in alignment with your business objectives, and creating plans for meaningful future investment.
  • Implement efficient logistics – Optimise supply chains and delivery routes to reduce unnecessary travel and empty loads. This can be achieved through advanced analytics, improved operational efficiency and AI-driven route optimisation.
  • Review electrification opportunities – As an output of the operations analysis, identify electrification opportunities within your current fleet. In addition to your vehicle duty cycles, this should also consider the total cost of ownership and government incentives available.
  • Take a first step – There is never a perfect time to make a change. Take action now with the technology available, monitor your progress and take corrective actions as required. Only by piloting initiatives, collaborating, and learning from our mistakes will we be able to truly begin on the journey required.

The technology for electric vehicles is evolving quickly. While immediate and full-scale adoption may not be feasible for all companies, it’s crucial for businesses to begin proactively preparing their supply chains for this imminent shift. There is already a myriad of innovative technological solutions being used by the companies at the forefront of this sector. The infancy of EV technology overall should not deter companies from exploring avenues to reduce their transportation carbon footprint and prepare for a more sustainable future.

Authors: Joe Miller and James Byrne

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