Transitioning to zero-emission heavy-duty freight vehicles

Published: 2017.09.26

Marissa Moultak, Nic Lutsey, and Dale Hall

In this report, we assess zero-emission heavy-duty vehicle technology to support decarbonization of the freight sector. We compare the evolution of heavy-duty diesel, diesel hybrid, natural gas, fuel cell, and battery electric technologies in the 2025–2030 timeframe. We synthesize data from the research literature, demonstrations, and low-volume commercial trucks regarding their potential to deliver freight with zero tailpipe emissions. We analyze the emerging technologies by their cost of ownership and life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions for the three vehicle markets of China, Europe, and the United States.

Based on the research findings, we draw the following three conclusions regarding emerging vehicle zero-emission technologies for heavy-duty vehicles.

Electric-drive heavy-duty vehicle technologies are essential to fully decarbonize the transport sector. Heavy-duty freight trucks are disproportionate contributors to pollution, representing less than one tenth of all vehicles but roughly 40% of their carbon emissions, and their activity keeps growing. Electric-drive technologies, similar to those being commercialized in cars, will be essential to decarbonize the heavy-duty sector and help meet climate stabilization goals. Whereas the more efficient potential diesel technologies can reduce carbon emissions by about 40%, electric-drive technologies powered by renewable sources can achieve over an 80% reduction in fuel life-cycle emissions.

By 2030, electric-drive heavy-duty vehicle technologies could offer cost-effective opportunities for deep emission reductions. Major projects involving heavy-duty electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicle technologies show great potential due to their much greater efficiency and use of available low-carbon fuel sources. We find that overhead catenary electric heavy-duty vehicles would cost approximately 25%–30% less, and hydrogen fuel cells at least 5%–30% less, than diesel vehicles to own, operate, and fuel in the 2030 timeframe. Key drivers for cost-effectiveness are battery pack costs dropping to below $150 per kilowatt-hour, hydrogen fuel costs dropping to below the per-energy-unit cost of diesel, and the cost of the associated infrastructure decreasing over time.

Different electric-drive technologies are suitable for different heavy-duty vehicle segments, but massive infrastructure investments would be needed. Advances in battery packs and other electric components will enable shorter distance urban commercial vans to become plug-in electric, similar to cars. Battery electric vehicles with overhead catenary or in-road charging can enable electric zero-emission goods transport on and around heavily traveled freight corridors. Hydrogen fuel cell technology might be especially key for longer-distance duty cycles. These technologies each have formidable barriers and will require sustained and extensive infrastructure investments by government and industry (e.g., overhead transmission, in-road charging, hydrogen refueling stations).