Why trucks and buses are pressing the electric button

A change is currently sweeping across heavy duty vehicles around the world as truck and bus makers switch their research and development efforts towards electric mobility.

Electric mobility is regularly cited as the most effective way to tackle health-damaging air pollution, meet climate objectives and sustain Europe’s industrial competitiveness. An EU-wide push to electric vehicles (EVs), including plug-in hybrids, would also serve other strategic aims: it would help boost the competitiveness of the European industry, which has been slow to adapt to low or zero emissions technologies.

When it comes to EVs, much of the attention has focused on cars, but truck and bus manufacturers are proving just as ambitious in their aims to switch to zero emissions.

Volvo Trucks has pledged to start selling electric medium-duty trucks in Europe from 2019, and the first units will be put into operation together with a few selected reference customers already this year. It has been working with Siemens, the German electrical giant, which has started testing overhead cables that enable trucks with pantographs to recharge their batteries on the move.

Volvo is hence in a technology race with Elon Musk’s Tesla to make electric trucks commercial. Tesla says its upcoming electric long-haul truck will have a maximum range of up to 1,000km, approaching double what industry insiders projected prior to the truck’s unveiling last November. But with production kickoff only expected in 2019, it may take time to roll onto the market.

US manufacturer Peterbilt has also begun working on an electric semi-trailer truck, and is cooperating with Meritor and TransPower, who will produce fully electric drive systems for two vehicle platforms.

German truckmaker Daimler is planning to start selling battery-powered big rigs by 2021, which industry insiders see as a more realistic goal. Daimler expects to start rolling out Mercedes-Benz electric trucks for trials this year, followed by mass production as of 2021.

Carriers are also committing to electric trucks. Many cities already have electric buses on their streets, with China leading the way in this area. Delivery giant UPS says the cost of putting an electric van on the road, including its power costs, will be lower than the equivalent costs of its diesel counterpart within a few years.

And infrastructure is being built to support electric trucks and buses. This includes charging stations, but also covers other tools. For example, Sweden has opened the first stretch of electrified road that allows trucks to charge themselves as they drive. The 2km road runs between Stockholm Airport and a logistics site, and is part of a larger plan to electrify the country’s 20,000km of highways by 2030.

The German government is set to drop tolls for electric trucks as of January 2019, a move designed to motivate the slow electrification of truck transport.

Electric vehicles are still only a tiny fraction of the current truck and bus market, and low carbon mobility is still a long way off. But if trends continue, they will be part of tomorrow’s cleaner traffic.