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Electric Trucks: What Impact Could E-Mobility Have on Road Freight Transportation?

One thing we can all agree on: The transport of goods by road has to stop depending on fossil fuels if we want to achieve a climate-neutral global economy. What's less obvious is the propulsion system that has the best odds of replacing conventional combustion engines over the long run. Electric trucks are already part of the logistics eco-system, used on the last mile and for delivery routes. Ultimately, there are prospects for long-distance freight transport as well.

E-Trucks – Is the Future of Road Freight Limited to Local Transportation?

In urban areas, battery-powered electric delivery vehicles have become a common sight. For freight routes with low payloads and limited range, EVs are already seen as a viable option. Why does electric mobility work for short distances while heavy commercial vehicles with electric motors are yet a rare find when looking at motorway and country road traffic?

There are three main factors impeding the breakthrough of e-mobility in heavy goods and long-distance transport:

  • limited range
  • Lack of EV charging infrastructure
  • high cost

Charging Infrastructure for Electric Trucks – No Problem for Short Journeys, a Stumbling Block for Long-Range Mobility

For distribution and delivery transportation, the lack of EV charging infrastructure and limited range are less relevant – no need to cover hundreds of kilometers at a time anyway. A night-time charging process with relatively low wattage, at a depot for example, is sufficient to keep the vehicle moving for its journeys throughout the day. This is why regional road freight transport is not as dependent on a public network of accessible charging points. Conversely, these two factors are slowing down electric trucks when it comes to long journeys.

The longer the route and the heavier the load, the larger and heavier the EV batteries have to be. At some point, even the most advanced engineering reaches its natural limits. After all, batteries require space – and space is a finite resource. The batteries also have a much lower energy density than diesel. Therefore, the range of a truck with a tank filled with diesel remains unrivalled, even if the latest models of heavy-duty electric trucks already manage to exceed 500 km of range.

In light of this, an adequate EV charging infrastructure becomes all the more important. While said infrastructure is already less than ideal for personal vehicles, the situation is even more dire once we're talking about long-distance truck operations. Truck charging stations on country roads and at motorway service stations are scarce to non-existent. In particular, there are insufficient stations with high-speed charging capacity, such as mega-chargers that would be capable of fully charging a battery within the EU-mandated 45-minute rest break for drivers (after 4.5 hours of driving).

As even simple truck parking spaces are often hard to find on motorways all across Europe, the space required for a dense charging network is a challenge in itself. In addition, the aforementioned mega-chargers require a connection to the high-voltage grid. Given said difficulties in terms of financing and technical implementation, European policymakers are going to have a hard time facilitating change.

That is why even heavy-duty electric trucks are currently mainly being charged overnight on company premises. The range of these vehicles is therefore limited by them having to return to the same depot at the end of the working day. Competing with diesel is out of the question.

Battery-powered trucks are up to three times more expensive than vehicles with diesel engines. In Europe, this price difference can be reduced to some extent by making use of various national subsidy programs. That being said, the purchase and operation of e-trucks is likely to become significantly cheaper as time goes on.

On one hand, it is likely that battery costs – the main price driver for EVs – will continue to fall; on the other hand, rising CO2 taxes, higher diesel prices, lower maintenance costs for electric motors, and reduced toll fees for e-trucks are likely to make e-mobility in road freight transportation more attractive and even cheaper than diesel trucks in the medium term.

E-Trucks: Benefits and Disadvantages from a Technical Perspective

  • Weight: When compared to diesel trucks, electric ones are heavier, simply due to their batteries. This limits their payload unless the gross vehicle weight rating is changed. Indeed, the EU Commission aims to make progress on said regulation. In many countries, e-trucks are already allowed to travel with a higher gross vehicle weight rating than combustion engines; the European Commission is planning to increase the gross vehicle weight rating for a semi-trailer throughout Europe to 44 tons compared to 40 tons for a diesel vehicle, for example.
  • Energy efficiency: Electric motors are much more energy-efficient than combustion engines and engines with hydrogen-powered fuel cell technology. If many trucks were to be equipped with electric motors, the overall energy consumption of the logistics sector would fall accordingly.
  • Emissions: Just like hydrogen trucks, battery-electric trucks do not produce any local emissions. This is what makes e-mobility so appealing for use in urban areas. Now, it needs to be said that EVs are only climate-neutral if they are powered exclusively by electricity from renewable sources. The climate is only helped to a limited extent if they obtain their electricity from polluting power stations. As the expansion of electromobility is increasing overall electricity consumption in Europe, renewable electricity generation must keep pace with the growth of electric vehicle fleets.

Special Case: Overhead-Line Trucks

When it comes to e-mobility for heavy goods vehicles, battery-electric vehicles are not the only option out there. There are also prototypes of overhead-line trucks where the power supply is provided by overhead electricity lines – comparable to electric locomotives. On a technical level, this solution works flawlessly and achieves a high level of efficiency, as tests in Sweden and Germany have shown.

However, thousands of kilometers of motorway would first have to be electrified with overhead lines. Otherwise, the potential applications for overhead-line trucks are just too limited. Expanding potential routes is the only way to generate sufficient demand and make the production of such vehicles worthwhile for manufacturers. Naturally, not every route will be equally suitable for electrification. Given the need to expand overhead lines substantially, the economic viability of the concept becomes questionable.

Besides that, the vehicles must be designed in a way that allows them to cover the distance to and from the overhead line using a (smaller) battery charged through that very same overhead line. Without such an additional battery, these trucks could only be used on electrified routes which would drastically lower their practical appeal. Hence, most manufacturers tend to be cautious in regard to the overhead-line category, focusing on battery-electric vehicles instead. It remains to be seen whether overhead-line vehicles will ever be ready for large-scale production.

E-Trucks in Europe

In regard to heavy goods transportation, e-trucks are yet the exception, and the selection of vehicles remains rather limited as well. Sure, the absolute number of newly registered e-trucks may be increasing, but over 95 percent of trucks registered in the EU in 2023 have a diesel engine and only 1.5 percent are battery-electric.

As long as the necessary EV charging infrastructure is insufficient, the rate is unlikely to increase by a lot. That being said, as far as reducing the price difference to diesel trucks at time of purchase is concerned, subsidies can indeed be helpful – provided they offer enough funds to truly make a difference.

E-Trucks at DHL Freight

For DHL Group and DHL Freight, electromobility plays a crucial role for delivery operations and on the last mile. In order to drive progress, DHL Freight has formed partnerships with well-known manufacturers such as Volvo and Daimler Trucks – and, on top of that, tests innovative vehicles from start-ups such as Volta Trucks which is now planning a comeback after its prior bankruptcy. We are also exploring options for the long haul; these vehicles are already being used within our regular operations on certain routes.


Breakthrough for Long-Range Transportation Hinges on EV Charging Infrastructure

E-trucks and e-mobility as a whole are important for DHL Freight as we set out to achieve our sustainability goals. The entire DHL Group aims to reduce its carbon footprint by 30 percent until 2030, using 2019 as the baseline. By 2050, all logistics-related emissions are to amount to net zero. We are pursuing a technology-neutral approach for long-distance heavy commercial vehicle transportation. In addition to e-mobility, we are keeping an eye on hydrogen fuel cell technology as a long-term option.

However, it is up to the political decision-makers to create the necessary infrastructure for electric heavy goods transport. On top of that, real environmental benefits are only achieved if there is sufficient green electricity. E-mobility could then become a fundamental building block of sustainable logistics. It's a future we want to help actively shape, on the last mile as well as on the motorway. After all, most market observers expect electric trucks to eventually account for most long-distance heavy goods transportation.

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