Smart Transport

The power of hydrogen to transform last mile delivery

Daniel Bonilla

By Daniel Bonilla, procurement director at automotive and green energy developer, First Hydrogen

Traditionally, hydrogen fuel cell has been considered as the most promising zero emission propulsion technology for industries that require vehicles with the capability to travel further and carry heavier payloads, such as HGV fleets and utilities. However, following successful real-world road trials in the UK, First Hydrogen’s vehicles are attracting interest from the parcel delivery sector.

Building zero emission fleets

Parcel delivery companies are under pressure to reduce their impact in the environment while keeping their operations commercially competitive. They are facing a specific set of challenges, which is encouraging them to explore other zero emissions technology in addition to battery electric vehicles (BEV):

  • Carbon emissions reduction targets: Most of the world’s economies have targets to reduce their emissions by around 50% by 2030 and to become carbon neutral by around 2050, mainly driven by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
  • Local restrictions on the use of polluting vehicles: Local and regional authorities are imposing restrictions to the use of polluting vehicles in certain areas introducing low emission zones, diesel bans and zero emission zones. Low emission zones are common practice in developed economies and by the end of the decade diesel bans and Zero Emission Zones (ZEZ) will be introduced globally.

Mixing zero emission technologies

Most last mile delivery fleets will likely choose battery electric (BEV) as their core propulsion technology due to the competitive total cost of ownership (TCO) and performance of the vehicles in urban routes. However, businesses are starting to realise that BEV vehicles have certain limitations that will impact their operations and will require them to diversity their fleets:

  • Limited Range: Battery electric vehicles (BEV) driving range capabilities will cope with most of the routes that are typically seen in this industry. However, they will struggle to meet the requirements of the edge cases where trips exceed 100 miles.
    This can be a significant constraint for last mile delivery operations that require covering multiple stops and longer distances. For some operators, these routes represent up to 50% of the total journeys, requiring vehicles with longer range capability such as internal combustion engine (ICE) and fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV).
  • Charging infrastructure and energy grid: The current energy distribution infrastructure cannot support the mass deployment of BEVs. The availability and accessibility of charging infrastructure remain uneven, particularly in certain urban and remote areas.
    The London boroughs of Hillingdon, Ealing & Hounslow recently paused housing development until 2035 because there is no spare capacity for new connections to the electricity grid, which is problematic for opening new charging depots. Deploying a charging infrastructure that can cope with the expected increase of private and commercial BEVs will take years and a sizeable investment from private businesses and public bodies.
  • Charging Time: BEVs require more time to charge compared to refuelling conventional vehicles. This can affect the efficiency and flexibility of last mile operations and requires additional planning as BEVs require more downtime if they need to be charged during working hours, which will be even more challenging if power usage is restricted at peak times to protect the grid.
  • Payload Capacity: The weight of battery packs in BEVs can reduce their payload capacity compared to traditional vehicles, impacting the volume and weight of goods that can be transported in a single trip.
  • Weather Sensitivity: Extreme temperatures can affect battery performance and range. Cold weather, for instance, can reduce battery efficiency and potentially impact the ability to complete deliveries.
  • Route Planning and Flexibility: Last mile delivery routes will need to be planned carefully to cope with the limited driving range and payload of BEV vehicles. Additionally, fleets where drivers take the vehicle home at night could struggle if drivers are reluctant to or unable to charge them at home.

The case for hydrogen

Fuel Cell technology is a clear candidate to fill this gap and complement the BEV vehicles. It offers a zero emissions alternative with longer driving range and faster refuelling that will enable fleets to maintain their operational flexibility.

Recent fleet operator trials with First Hydrogen’s proof-of-concept demonstrator vehicles have highlighted that a FCEV light commercial vehicle offers a viable solution for last mile delivery. Particularly those who are struggling to deploy BEVs.

First Hydrogen’s FCEV technology offers a similar performance to equivalent ICE vehicles in terms of range, payload and towing with a zero emissions powertrain. Our two demonstrator vehicles have completed well over 6,000 km testing different use cases including urban, highway and combined duty cycles.

The performance of the vehicles during this testing confirmed the figures obtained during simulations with an average H2 consumption between 1.5-2 kg / 100 km and driving ranges between 500-650 km depending on external conditions such as traffic, payload and speed.

Investment in hydrogen

Private and public investors in Europe and North America have recognised the potential of hydrogen to play a pivotal role in the transition to zero emissions transportation. There are several programmes stimulating the investment in this area with the objective of increasing the number of refuelling points and reducing the cost of green hydrogen.

It is expected that by 2030 the cost of hydrogen will have dropped below EUR €5 / kg in the European Union or £4.09 / kg in the UK. With the expected reduction in vehicle cost, this will make the TCO of a FCEV vehicle more competitive than ICE alternatives.

BEV will likely remain the technology with the most competitive TCO for last mile delivery for at least the next decade. However, the expected reduction in FCEV costs will put this technology within an acceptable margin in respect to BEV to justify the diversification of the fleet and improve the operational flexibility.

It is clear that for last mile delivery businesses to achieve their carbon reduction targets, they will have to deploy a mix of powertrain technologies in the coming decade. BEV will undoubtedly take the leading role in this industry, but FCEV is set to take a major share of this market due to its superior driving range and operational flexibility.

About the author

Daniel has over 10 years’ experience across different mobility sectors including rail, aerospace and automotive. During his career he has worked for some of the biggest global technology and engineering brands including Arrival, Hitachi and Rolls-Royce. He leads the development of First Hydrogen’s procurement and supply chain function.

First Hydrogen is exhibiting its first-of-its-kind fuel cell van at Fleet & Mobility Live, NEC Birmingham on 3 & 4 October.

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