Let us start with a political issue: trucks are the main means of freight transport worldwide. As the results of a Roland Berger study have shown, some 70 per cent of all merchandise travels by road and in China, even more than 75 per cent. Furthermore, nothing indicates that this will decrease in coming years. At the same time, climate policy is placing ever greater emphasis on the increasing pollutant emissions from road traffic. Is this an insoluble contradiction?

The facts

Just as CO2 emissions do not stop at national borders, road traffic is a global issue. In this instance however, we aim to concentrate initially on the situation in Germany.

According to the Federal Statistical Office, 79 per cent of goods were transported on the roads here in 2017. Railways accounted for 8 per cent, ocean and inland shipping for 11 per cent and pipelines and air traffic for 2 per cent. Changing the dominant role of the road will therefore not be quite so easy.

According to the Federal Environment Agency, traffic-related greenhouse gas emissions increased to around 171 million metric tonnes in 2017, whereas they decreased slightly overall. Approximately one third is caused by freight transport.

According to German climate protection targets, the aim however is to reduce traffic emissions by 40 per cent versus 1990 by 2030 – i.e. within a good ten years. Whereas other sectors have in some cases already exhibited substantial reductions, emissions from traffic have not changed since 1990. On the contrary, they have even slightly increased. The sector is therefore faced with a mammoth task, reflected in the frantic discussions currently under way concerning possible solutions.

The alternatives put forward for freight transport include:

  • transfer to the railways
  • electrification (for vehicles and infrastructure)
  • use of fuels with lower CO2 emissions (e.g. CNG, e-fuels, HVO)
  • restricting road traffic by increasing costs (tolls, higher fuel costs through CO2 taxation)

However: forecasts predict that requirements in terms of road transport services will further grow solely as a result of increasing e-commerce.

Electrification meets with obstacles

Since a shift to the railways is not so easy and at the same time, the EU is applying pressure with stricter CO limit values that, by 2030, are now set to be 30 per cent lower than – bear it in mind! – 2019 for new commercial vehicles too, more and more consideration is being given to vehicle technology. It has not been possible to predict up to now whether use of lower-emission fuels will be able to count towards these fleet targets in the future. This does not seem likely at present.

Is electric battery-powered freight transport conceivable? The first attempts have already been made at equipping motorways with overhead power lines. If however one considers that not even 60 per cent over 38,000 km of rail network in Germany is electrified, it is questionable how realistic it is to equip some 13,000 km of German motorways with overhead power.

Which brings us to the second question: is an electric battery-driven truck worthwhile? As a reminder: the energy density of liquid fuels is more than twenty times greater than that of a lithium-ion battery. Hence: batteries that would provide a suitable range for commercial vehicles are simply too heavy.

So is it possible to stem freight traffic by higher costs? Such ideas are based on the assumption that something high-priced is used more sparingly. Will consumers do without their Internet orders though in the future, merely because transport is more expensive? No. Quite the opposite. Amazon and the like have only just begun conquering the market and customers expect that the delivery service will also continue to be free of charge – at least above a certain order value.

Fully electric Freightliner eM2 by Daimler Trucks

The “last mile”

This leads us to a crucial aspect of freight transport, which finally but importantly also affects conveyance of mineral oil, for example when exporting heating oil or supplying petrol stations: the so-called “last mile” to the customer.

There are already noteworthy prototypes here, such as the German postal service e-scooter, which other delivery services are also contemplating. With delivery of the first all-electric Freightliner eM2, Daimler Trucks recently embarked on practical testing of heavy and medium-heavy “e-trucks” in the USA. There are definitely hauliers in this country too who could conceive of an electrically powered truck for use on short trips.
The crux of the matter: an innovation in new technology of this kind needs to be profitable. As soon as the benefits outweigh the costs, electric trucks will also be used to a greater extent.

Before that however – and above all for long-distance transport of goods by road ‒ reduction of emissions will be achieved first and foremost through use of alternative fuels. There are already numerous examples and practical solutions in this area.

First innovations in the sector

What does this mean though for tanker builders? They must prepare themselves for the fact that the steadily increasing demand for diesel fuel in recent years will also decline in the future and consequently fewer conventional tankers will be required.

They can help to ensure that the vehicle superstructures are made increasingly lighter so as to be able to transport the same or more payload with less fuel consumption. This will enable hauliers and dealers to at least partially offset spiralling costs.

In addition: They can also adopt the trend towards electrification in the tank building sector, as was demonstrated for the first time by Esterer at the expo PetroTrans 2018 in the form of the “PEANO”, the first tanker for use on public roads in which the feed pump for fuel oil or fuel supply is driven electrically – and thus quietly and locally emission-free.

So what will happen next?

1st conclusion: there is no substitute for liquid fuels in heavy goods traffic, but their CO2 emissions are decreasing.

2nd conclusion: vehicle electrification can be profitable and reduce costs over the “last mile”. Comparatively short-term changes will therefore be occurring here. This could also apply in future to delivery vehicles for mineral oils, which regularly cover limited and precisely plannable distances.

3rd conclusion: Although vehicle builders have no influence on what truck manufacturers develop, they can certainly however work innovatively in the area of superstructures and chassis and thus strengthen their competitiveness.