State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Workshop Explores How to Make Trucks Electric and Autonomous

freight truck driving on road
Freight trucks consume 17 percent of the global oil demand, generating tons of greenhouse gas and air pollution emissions in the process. Could electrification help? Photo: Benchill/Wikimedia Commons

By Marianne Kah

Freight movement is an important enabler of economic activity. We saw substantial growth in freight movement in industrialized countries over the last three decades, and growth is accelerating in emerging markets with the rise in demand for consumer and industrial goods. Global road transportation of freight is also a large consumer of energy as well as an emitter of air pollutants and greenhouse gases.

Trucks accounted for about 16 million barrels per day, or 17 percent of global oil demand in 2017, and are projected to be responsible for nearly one-third of global oil demand growth by 2040. Diesel fuel consumption in road transport has grown a staggering eightfold since 1970.

Road freight vehicle greenhouse gas emissions are currently three gigatonnes of CO2-equivalent and are projected to more than double by 2050. The bulk of greenhouse gas emissions and growth are for heavy-duty vehicles, which travel substantially more miles than smaller trucks and use more fuel per mile. Road freight vehicles are also important contributors to NOx, fine particulates, and SO2 emissions. Air pollution is the single greatest environmental health risk, accounting for one in eight deaths globally.

Despite these energy use and environmental challenges, road freight transport has not received the same policy attention as passenger cars. For example, only four countries have historically had fuel efficiency standards for medium- or heavy-duty trucks, while 80 percent of light-duty vehicle sales are covered by fuel efficiency standards. A recent workshop at Columbia University explored the potential for electrification to reduce oil consumption and emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollutants in trucks. Given the larger size and greater distances traveled by medium- and heavy-duty trucks versus passenger vehicles, and the higher cost and weight of the batteries than of conventional engines, it will likely be more challenging to electrify large trucks than light-duty vehicles.

On February 19, 2019, Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, in collaboration with the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis, held a workshop focused on the prospects for global truck electrification and automation and the development of new urban delivery models along with the potential energy demand impacts. Participants included experts from truck, engine, and battery manufacturers; oil companies; clean transportation NGOs; US federal government agencies and national labs; city government; the financial community; and transportation researchers from the academic community.

The workshop focused on new urban freight delivery models as well as on medium and heavy-duty truck electrification and automation. It also looked at prospects for electrification in buses. There was a special focus on China given that it is one of the largest growth areas for road freight activity in the coming decades. The workshop also assessed the energy and oil demand impacts of electrification and automation in the global trucking sector. It also explored the use of hydrogen fuel cells as an alternative to battery electrification for heavy-duty vehicles. Finally, the workshop addressed the government policies that would be needed to support truck electrification.

Read about the workshop’s findings and insights on the Center on Global Energy Policy website.

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Tania Brytania
4 years ago

Great article! I hope one day the most of cars on the road will be autonomous. It will help to avoid many accidents. In many of european countries a lot of people lost their life on the roads every year. The problem exists espiecially in Eeast Europe. New technology can be very helpful.