Commercial vehicles – like trucks, vans and buses – are not consumer goods; they are tools used to get a job done. When looking at passenger cars, the main variable is the amount of people to be transported. A single commercial vehicle, however, might be used for very different purposes and at very different degrees of intensity.
The same van occasionally used by a shop owner for the delivery of flowers to inner-city customers, might be used by another operator for a 24/7 courier service of heavy furniture between Madrid and Hamburg. Reducing CO2 emissions and improving air quality are also key priorities in the commercial vehicle segment. Besides further optimising the combustion engine, other powertrain options increasingly play a role in this.
But not every powertrain is ideal for all tasks, so it is not possible to designate a single technology for a particular commercial vehicle, let alone an entire vehicle class! Commercial vehicles literally cover thousands of different mission profiles, and come in all shapes and sizes. So how to choose the best powertrain for a truck, van or bus? Let’s take a look at the three main use categories: urban transport of goods, collective transport of people and the long-haul and regional transport of goods.
The distribution of goods in urban areas is characterised by a relatively low daily range and, in most cases, does not require a very high load capacity. For these kind of missions, manufacturers already offer innovative solutions, from natural gas-powered garbage trucks to hybrid delivery trucks. Natural gas vehicles can be used for short and medium distances, but a major obstacle remains the lack of refuelling infrastructure.
Battery-electric vans are generally seen as suitable for city-centre distribution, since the vehicles can be charged overnight. Still, their market uptake is hampered by design constraints: batteries often come at the expense of loading space. And practice shows that businesses will not sacrifice payload for lower fuel consumption.
For the time being, diesel remains the powertrain of choice for many users of vans – making up 96% of all vans sold in 2016. Electric ones, on the other hand, accounted for only 0.6% of EU sales last year. A shift from conventional drives to alternative drives can thus only be expected in a longer time frame.
When we look at public transport in cities, various options exist already. From full-electric buses to hybrids, or those running on bio-methane. Most buses follow prescribed routes in urban areas and have dedicated depots, so they lend themselves more easily for using alternative powertrains than many other vehicles. Fuel-cell buses have a longer range and shorter recharging time than electric ones, but are costly and lack recharging infrastructure.
From London to Las Palmas, from Riga to Rome – no one city is the same as the other. So, there isn’t one technology suitable for all circumstances either. What might be the right option for one city may not necessarily be the best solution for another. Local characteristics, like topography, climate and frequency of stops, have an important influence on performance and so on technology choice. Moreover, it is necessary to take account not only of initial capital expenditure, but also energy and maintenance costs, the potential life of assets and the fleet renewal frequency.
The third major use category is the long-haul and regional transport of goods, which comes with specific load-bearing and distance requirements. Sufficiently high-capacity batteries are very heavy and big, thereby reducing the loading capacity of a truck. With electric trucks being about three times as expensive as conventional ones, costs are generally considered to be prohibitive for long-haul transport as well. Finally, there is the issue of battery range, with electric trucks currently having a range of just 150-400km, depending on the mass of the battery.
Clearly, there is no point in recharging a long-haul truck every two hours. Research projects involving overhead electrification and inductive charging are ongoing, but would require enormous investments in infrastructure. A promising alternative is hybridisation, which is already available on the market. In addition, sustainable biofuels can be used with existing engines and today’s refuelling infrastructure.
Highly-optimised internal combustion engines will likely remain the dominant source of propulsion for long-haul trucks, also in the long run. The characteristics of diesel engines make them perfectly suited for use in heavy and long-haul commercial vehicles. Diesel offers low fuel costs and high mileage, ensuring a long range between stops. It also provides high pulling power, which improves load-carrying and towing – crucial criteria for the transport of heavy goods over long distances.
As you can tell: no single powertrain can cover all the many and varied needs of commercial vehicles. The right choice is strongly dependent on the intended use, or ‘mission’, of that particular vehicle. What might work for one vehicle in a specific context, will not work in another situation. Instead, in each case the user will have to identify the most suitable option. There is no one magic solution.
Reality shows that transport operators will only consider purchasing alternative powertrains if their cost and productivity are comparable to conventional engines. Before a bigger shift to alternative technologies can happen, some key barriers hindering their market uptake will need to be addressed, such as:
- The high purchase price of commercial vehicles with alternative powertrains, and thus a more difficult return on investment for their operators.
- Limited capacity due to constraints on loading space, which often still comes at the expense of the battery.
- Lower productivity as the result of a limited range and long charging times, leading to more downtime and thus requiring more vehicles to perform the same task.
- Lack of the necessary refuelling and recharging infrastructure, as well as limited availability of alternative fuels on a large scale.
Can these barriers be overcome in the future? And what will power tomorrow’s trucks, vans and buses? Join me on Wednesday 29 November to discuss these and other topical questions at ACEA’s ‘Powertrain options for commercial vehicles’ conference.
The event also provides a perfect opportunity to discover a range of trucks, buses and vans powered by different technologies – including electric, hybrid, gas, diesel, biogas and ethanol vehicles. Interested? Click here to register or to find out more about the event.
I am looking forward to welcoming you on 29 November!
Secretary General of ACEA