A zero-emission transport sector? It is so near yet so far away

Last autumn at COP 26, we wanted to demonstrate to politicians and industry what’s already possible today. We wanted to show them – in real life – a fully battery-powered, heavy duty concept vehicle made from fossil-free steel. Even better, we wanted to transport this vehicle to the conference on the back of another world-first – a fully electric, heavy-duty long-haul Volvo truck.
A zero-emission transport sector

We tried, but we couldn’t. There simply were not enough truck-ready electric charging stations to power our emissions-free long-distance truck all the way from Sweden to Glasgow.

It hasn’t stopped us. We are already manufacturing our new lines of electric trucks, and later this year we will start to gradually replace traditional steel in our electric trucks with green, fossil-free steel.

After all, there’s no choice. Just a few months ago, the climate scientists convened by the United Nations had to issue yet another dramatic warning: we have to act now or will soon face a world that’s rapidly becoming “unliveable”. For Europe’s economy, this means we have to urgently transform carbon-intensive sectors like transportation. As more than three quarters of the freight within the continent is moved by road, we have to engineer a comprehensive and early switch to Zero Emission Vehicles that are powered by carbon-free electric, hydrogen and other alternative powertrains.

But that leaves us with the main problem of e-Mobility: you can’t have emissions-free vehicles without the infrastructure that supports them.

From a vehicle manufacturer’s point of view we have solved most of the technology challenges. We at Volvo Group are committed that by 2030 at least 35 percent of the vehicles we sell will be emissions free. This, however, also means that we must redouble our efforts supporting the roll-out of new charging infrastructures that can support emissions-free commercial vehicles.

I see eight pathways that we need to pursue to overcome this challenge:

  • Charging and refueling network: We must rapidly grow the network of high-performance charging points and hydrogen refueling stations that support the next generation of heavy-duty, electrified vehicles. That’s why Volvo Group, Daimler Truck and Traton Group (Scania and MAN) have proposed a joint venture to invest 500 million euro to install at least 1,700 additional charging points powered by green energy that will support battery electric, long-haul heavy-duty trucks and coaches. It’s a start, but by 2030 Europe has to have a network of 50,000 charging points or more.
  • Alternative powertrains: Fully battery-powered vehicles only are not sufficient. There are plenty of use cases – for example long haul transport across remote areas or on off-grid construction sites – where we will need alternative powertrains. We have now developed hydrogen fuel cells that are powerful enough for commercial transport systems, and the building of a hydrogen infrastructure is accelerating. We also already offer vehicles with combustion engines that run on fossil free fuels such as biogas.
  • Innovation: Some of the challenges ahead have to be approached with unusual solutions. At Volvo Group we have for example developed portable powerbanks that have truck capacity and can take the energy to places far away from the electricity grid.
  • Standardisation: Infrastructure investments take a lot of planning and determine technology options for many years ahead. That’s why we need clear decisions on standards now. Remember Europe’s early decision to back the GSM standard for mobile telephony? It triggered a huge wave of innovation and investments. We now have to do the same for all aspects of our net-zero carbon transport future. For instance, we need further development of standards for the interoperability of high-power charging systems and vehicles from different manufacturers.
  • Carbon pricing: We need a clear pricing regime for carbon to ensure that zero-emissions assets can compete with fossil alternatives.
  • Renewable energy: Sources of renewable energy must be scaled at speed, because e-Mobility must not simply push the point of emissions from vehicles to power generation.
  • Net-zero value chain: It’s not just the powertrains of vehicles that need to be electrified and decarbonized, but the production of heavy-duty vehicles itself. That’s why we have invested so heavily in carbon-free steel production and other technologies that will help us to reach “net zero” across the lifetime of each vehicle. 
  • Demand-side measures: It’s true, the upfront cost of electric vehicles is still high. However, that’s only true at the moment of purchase. Over their lifetime, emissions free heavy-duty vehicles are not just an environmental must, but also a good business decision. As studies show, electric powertrains can already deliver net savings of several hundred thousand euros. Governments need to provide incentives that will make it easier and cheaper for haulers to make the switch to emissions-free vehicles. That’s especially important considering the fact that the vast majority of heavy-duty trucks and coaches are owned by smaller operators with a fleet of just a few commercial vehicles.

Now is the time to decide how we will pursue each of these pathways. Investment decisions on both infrastructure and heavy-duty vehicles tend to have time horizons of 10, 15 years or more. Any delay now will set back our fight against climate change by many years.

Governments and industry have to agree clear net-zero roadmaps for transport that go to 2025, 2030 and beyond. Only if we solve this issue of e-Mobility will our industry be able to make its much-needed contribution to the safeguarding of our planet. 

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