What’s fuelling your future?

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Commercial vehicles are a necessity in the supply chain, getting products from distributor to retailer, and they too must evolve to support changing industry and consumer demands. Maria Highland investigates what technologies are driving us forward…

Prime minister Theresa May has recently unveiled a £106 million funding package for projects developing innovative green battery, vehicle and refuelling technology. The aim is to make the UK a world leader in low emission technology.

The mission for clean energy is wide spread and many commercial vehicles operators often don’t have a choice when it comes to going green due to the introduction of Low Emission Zones in various areas. “Since the introduction of the Ultra-Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ), local authorities have set targets for motor manufacturers and operators to meet,” explains SCALA senior consultant Rob Wright.

“So long as these targets are practical and realistic, they will drive positive behavioural changes and outcomes. As an example, the latest Euro VI engine technology meets the ULEZ requirements – creating a practical way all operators can comply,” he assures.

“Sadly, towards the end of 2018 an operation fleet report uncovered that one in five fleet operators will just pay the fines if charged to enter clean air zones (CAZs), rather than replace older vehicles with new, cleaner models,” continued Wright. “Ultimately, it is a governmental approach to Climate Change that will have the biggest impact on commercial vehicle development, whether this be through legislation, emission reduction targets, or incentivising technology and innovation.”

In line with this, many manufacturers have started to go electric. Porsche has commissioned a fully electric 32-tonne MAN eTGM truck to enhance its production logistics at its Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen site. This will save over 30,000 kilograms of CO2 emissions per year. The eTruck also produces low noise emissions and has reduced wear and maintenance, using recuperation to decelerate without mechanical braking to minimise brake abrasion.

Daimler has also set out plans to buy €20 billion of battery cells saying: “We are systematically pushing forward with the transformation into the electric future of our company.” It is focusing on all-electric cars, vans and trucks as it expects sales of battery-electric cars are to increase to 15-25 per cent of total unit sales by 2025 – depending on individual customer preferences and the development of the public infrastructure.

Daimler also launched its first all-electric truck, the Fuso eCanter last year, while the eActros was unveiled in June 2018. In September, Mercedes-Benz Trucks handed over the first of a total of ten eActros trucks to a customer for use in everyday operations. Meyer-Logistikwas one of the customers to has take delivery of an eActros, which is used to serve supermarkets in the centre of Hamburg. It has payload of ten tonnes and is expected to cover 100 kilometres a day. The range of the eActros is up to 200km.

Although is there a large market offering of electric power vehicles, electric power may now be quite ready for long distance journeys. “In short,” explains Gasrec COO James Westcott, “technology has not developed to a point where the energy required to move an HGV and still have sufficient payload to carry goods is possible.”

He argues that “battery technology is simply not ready for heavy-duty electric transport. Replacing the equivalent energy of 100 litres of diesel would require a 3.5-tonne battery. Try fitting a battery that size onto a truck for which every inch of space holds commercial value and the downside is clear. In simple terms, fleet operators are confronted with a trade-off between range and payload that can’t be reconciled. Payload wins every time.”

Queue alternative fuels. “For heavy goods operations there is only one practical, commercial alternative to diesel at present, which is natural gas,” says Westcott.  “Aside from the environmental benefits, which deliver 99% fewer particulate emissions and 70% less nitrogen oxide in addition to CO2 emissions savings of up to 90%, there is a significant cost saving supported by the Government’s duty reduction which is in place until 2032.

“Fleets which particularly benefit are those covering at least 80,000 km per vehicle per annum – plus these savings increase with greater distances, so a standard 44t fleet covering 160,000 km will show fantastic returns. As legislation drives towards cleaner transport, natural gas offers a commercially viable alternative which is attractive to operators and customers alike,” says Westcott.

Wright points out that “for some operators, investing in alternative fuels can be economically viable, as the alternative fuel might be a readily available waste product – examples of which can be seen in bio gas and bio fuels.”

Likewise, hydrogen power is coming out as trend amongst vehicles operators. For example, Budweiser brewer Anheuser-Busch ordered up to 800 hydrogen-electric powered artics from the Nikola Motor Company, which will be delivered from 2020.

A-B aims to convert its entire long-haul fleet to renewable powered trucks by 2025. “At Anheuser-Busch we’re continuously searching for ways to improve sustainability across our entire value chain and drive our industry forward,” said chief executive Michel Doukeris.

“Hydrogen-electric technology is the future of logistics and we’re proud to be leading the way,” added Nikola chief executive Trevor Milton. The hydrogen fuel cell trucks will be able to travel between 500 and 1,200 miles and be refilled within 20 minutes, reducing idle time.

Wright also sees hydrogen as being as more sustainable in the long run when compared to electric: “Personally, I see Hydrogen Fuel Cell (HFC) technology as the most realistic long-term alternative option at the moment, with HFCs powering an electric motor with the emission from the exhaust pipe being water. Throughout rigorous testing, HFCs have proven themselves against tough conditions such as cold environments, hurricanes, deserts and winter storms, making them incredibly reliable.”

However, Westcott sits firmly with natural gas. He agrees that in the “long run other technologies may be developed which offer greater potential than natural gas, however, today none are available. This is particularly true for the fleets which deliver our goods and services across the UK, working over long distances carrying heavy loads,” he adds.

“Natural gas is available today, supported by a range of vehicle manufacturers, and crucially it is cost-competitive versus diesel. There is no other option available today which can meet fleet needs, and in the case of hydrogen there simply isn’t a product to buy,” states Westcott.

Notably, Ocado has invested £3 million in an on site natural gas refuelling station at its Hatfield Customer Fulfilment Centre which will reduce its HGV fleet CO2 emissions by 29 per cent annually. The site launched with 29 heavy goods vehicles powered by compressed natural gas, blended biomethane replacing existing diesel vehicles. 20 per cent of Ocado’s HGV fleet is now powered by alternative fuel.

“By investing in gas-powered vehicles, and in our first on site refuelling station, we’re future-proofing our fleet and our business,” said Ocado fleet services manager, Graham Thomas. “Emissions from CNG are cleaner than Euro VI standards which start to take effect with the London Low Emissions Zone from April, and will soon be followed by a further 32 Clean Air Zones.”

Likewise, the John Lewis Partnership is planning phase out all diesel-powered heavy trucks from its fleet by 2028 and will introduce over 500 delivery trucks powered by bio-methane into its fleets. The partnership already has 61 bio-methane trucks already in operation or about to be delivered and the bio-methane fuel supplied by CNG Fuels.

And for those operators who do not yet employ the use of alternative fuel vehicles in their fleets, fleet management and rental specialists such as Fraikin can be of help. “Trucks and vans are the lifeblood of the cities they operate in, so it’s up to the industry to find a way of keeping things moving in the face of ever-tightening emissions controls,” says Fraikin commercial director James Walker. “We are working closely with our customers to help them take their first steps in making the transfer to cleaner vehicle technologies, including gas and electric drivelines.”

He understands that “there will be concerns about the cost of these alternative fuelled vehicles, but at Fraikin we are already adapting our business model to ensure that we have the financing options, maintenance options, breakdown support, diagnostics and telematics technology in place to make them a commercially viable solution.”

Westcott says retailers and 3PLs can begin to transition to alternative fuels by simply trying a vehicle. “The first step would be to try a vehicle, and IVECO, Volvo and Scania all have demonstrators available for fleets to work with prior to a purchasing decision. There is a refuelling network available to support trials and no need to commit to long term decisions,” he says.

For example, Arcese has introduced a  6.5-tonne IVECO Daily Natural Power chassis cab light commercial vehicle powered by compressed natural gas into its UK fleet, enabling it to make unrestricted deliveries in central London and reduce its environmental impact. The vehicle 50 per cent quieter than diesel, making it ideal for early morning and night deliveries.

Most of Arcese’s journeys end up in London’s Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), which comes into force next year, said Arcese UK county manager Michele Nascetti: “we needed a manufacturer which could quickly supply gas-powered vehicles that already meet current and future emission standards.”

And so, the people have spoken: they want a clean vehicle future and vehicles operators and manufacturers are responding. But what do vehicles owners and operators want? They “are looking for safety, legal compliance, operational efficiency and reliability,” says Wright.

He continues, noting that technological innovations have been developed to meet these needs. These “include; Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB), Lane Departure Warning (LDW), automatic park braking systems, internal and external camera technology, telematics, driving style systems and other in-cab tools.”

Commercial vehicle manufacturers are already touching upon such technologies, and even further. Mercedes-Benz has launched a new Actros model with a “partially automated” driving facility, Active Drive Assist, which can brake, accelerate and steer independently.

Active Drive Assist offers the driver partially automated driving in all speed ranges for the first time in a series-produced truck. New elements are active latitudinal control and the combination of longitudinal and lateral control in all speed ranges through a fusion of radar and camera information. However, responsibility for monitoring the traffic situation remains with the driver, but the system provides significant support and makes an important contribution to increased road safety.

Wright does accept that “although there are a number of autonomous vehicle trials underway across the globe,” he still thinks it is “fairly difficult to envisage an autonomous commercial vehicle on UK roads – There will always be the need for a driver in the vehicle to oversee other processes (outside of just driving the vehicle). The technologies that will succeed here will be those that optimise the overall driving and vehicle performance.”

Instead he believes that “the greatest operational efficiency and environmental gains for a commercial vehicle operator can be how optimally they are operating their vehicles. Are the vehicles full and what percentage of the journey is the vehicle operating empty? This is where the greatest technological advancements can be made.” It all depends where you are at – but we can be sure that there is innovative technology to help operators at every stage to help them get the most out of their commercial vehicles.


This article first appeared in Logistics Manager, February 2019

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