Smart Transport

Case study: Solutions to the freight challenge - Electrification

Christian Wolmar looks at electrication as a solution to the freight challenge

The barriers to full-scale electrification are well known.

There are concerns over the price of the vehicles, which are higher than their conventional equivalents but, of course, this is offset by cheaper fuel.

Some industry observers reckon that parity over lifetime costs has now been reached and that soon electric will be cheaper in this respect. 

So far, there is nothing approaching a viable 44-tonne electric truck.

Several manufacturers, such as MAN and Mercedes-Benz, are testing large trucks but none is in production.

Smaller trucks and vans are more widely available and, in an effort to encourage the greater use of electric light goods vehicles, the Government has changed the weight threshold of electric vans from 3.5 to 4.25 tonnes to take account of the weight of their batteries. 

Range remains a barrier.

To electrify, there is a trade off between weight and range, and one fundamental issue is whether to have lots of charging points and therefore be able to cope with a shorter range, or have bigger batteries. 

Christopher Snelling of the FTA suggests “it is better to bring the electrons to the vehicle through frequent charging rather than carrying them around in big batteries”. 

However, the problem with that is there is a lack of charging points and no coherent Government policy about how to provide them.

The reduction in the operating costs of electric vans does not tackle issues of capital costs such as the higher cost of buying the vehicles and the need to install charging systems at depots. 

While the introduction of electric vehicles (EVs) obviously improves air quality if they are used on roads instead of conventional vehicles, the overall effect is more complex.

The disposal of batteries, which includes highly toxic chemicals, is an area which has not been resolved and to complicate any assessment of their sustainability, less than a third of electricity in the UK is currently produced from sustainable sources. 

The take up of EVs is still very low, with sales amounting to just 4% for hybrid and plug-in vehicles.

If there were a massive take up, the issues of the source of electricity would come to the fore.

Moreover, as was pointed out by the Government’s Air Quality Expert Group in July, particles from brake and tyre wear as well as dust from the road surface directly contribute to well over half of particle pollution from road transport. 

Therefore, even an entirely electric fleet would not be entirely sustainable.

Read Christian Wolmar's full article on the freight challenge and potential solutuions from the Smart Transport Journal

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