Daily carbon dioxide emissions dropped by 17% in April, accounting for about 17 million tonnes less of CO2 every day. In fact, the European Union has seen total CO2 emissions decline by 20% from 1990 to 2016 as well. Taken at face value, one could be forgiven for thinking our global emissions levels are on the right track at the moment given the international agreements to curb greenhouse gas effects and the ongoing global pandemic.
But these figures belie the underlying causes for concern, specifically in the area of road freight transport. During the same period in Europe, transport emissions increased by 27%, and today, freight equipment accounted for nearly half of the six sectors identified by the Energy Transition Commission as the most difficult to decarbonise. Trucks alone are the fastest-growing source of CO2 emissions worldwide, expected to contribute to a 15% increase in total global emissions by 2050, and accounting for nearly 7% of that total today. Transitioning to electric, as seen with passenger cars, comes with hurdles, both in implementation and in terms of cost.
So what’s the solution for road freight transport? Simply put: electric first, autonomous second. The only way to reverse the trend is through the widespread adoption of electric freight solutions, propelled by the implementation of autonomous transport systems and coordinated by an intelligent freight mobility platform that will make scaled adoption of electric freight transport exponentially more sustainable and cost-competitive.
Amplified by a global respiratory virus outbreak, the dangers of current emissions in urban areas around the globe are becoming clear. Air pollution is already a risk factor for many illnesses, and is a factor in hospitalisations and deaths for these conditions, not to mention the increased risk of severe symptoms from contracting COVID-19. Today, heavy-duty vehicles are the main source of health-threatening NOx emissions in urban areas. As a result, 24 cities housing more than 62 million people will ban diesel vehicles, and 13 of those will ban all internal combustion vehicles by 2030.
Incremental improvements to the efficiency of diesel engines are not enough, and in a scenario where a great majority of trucks remain diesel-powered, reaching the EU’s carbon neutrality goals for 2030 or 2050 will be impossible according to the International Transport Forum.
Quite simply, electric vehicles (EVs) eliminate these harmful emissions at the source, and autonomous electric transport (AET) can improve the sustainability of these solutions exponentially. Vehicles like the Pod – with no driver’s cab whatsoever – reduce vehicle weight, allow for more design flexibility, increase productivity by nearly 200% over a human-operated vehicle, and allow for even greater scheduling and routing optimisation, enhancing the sustainability of electric freight exponentially.
This solution will have an even greater impact in other countries and regions outside of our own, given that the emission reduction potential will increase slightly in Sweden and Nordic countries from 2018-2030 due to their current low-footprint electricity. The same reduction potential is expected to significantly increase by 2030 in the EU, from 56% to 83%, and in the US from 34% to 73% given the current targets for carbon intensity in electricity production. By 2025, a network of 10,000 electric and autonomous trucks coordinated by our freight mobility platform would offset at least 904,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year.
According to Dr Mehdi Akbarian – Director, Efficient Mobility at autonomous and electric vehicle tech company Einride, “Electrification is the only way for road freight to reach emission reduction goals. Einride makes it possible with intelligent freight mobility and autonomous electric transport (AET) solutions.”
Despite the clear benefits, there are still hurdles to the widespread adoption of electric and autonomous vehicles at the practical level. While electrification results in lower operational costs (given the lower costs of electricity compared to diesel), the higher acquisition cost of EVs, as well as their need to charge during a work day, will be a barrier to their scaled adoption without intelligent planning.
There are also infrastructure concerns for implementing electric trucks, let alone AET.
Sparse charging networks and a lack of fast-charging options for the longer-distance and higher-volume demands of road freight are not yet up to snuff, making for an operational barrier to those intent on electrification. This is where the freight mobility platform comes in: simplifying the implementation of EVs and AET so that this upfront investment can immediately have the greatest impact on emissions and cost reduction.
The embodied emissions associated with battery production of electric trucks has also been a source of contention. While an electric truck starts its life with a higher embodied footprint, its lower operational emissions result in an overall CO2 offset compared to a diesel vehicle. Their life cycle comparison tells a promising story: even with the current electricity mix, an EV will offset its embodied footprint early in its life. This breakeven between EVs and diesel vehicles will materialise after nearly 30,000 km of driving in Sweden and 145,000 km on average for the rest of the world, resulting in CO2 emission savings over their remaining lifetime, typically of around 1,000,000 km.
Perhaps the highest hurdle is making the unit economics of electric trucks work in favor of cost-competitiveness with conventional diesel vehicles. Battery-powered trucks must be charged regularly and with a driver in the vehicle, which without proper planning decreases truck utilisation. This makes operating electric trucks with a diesel vehicle mindset cost-neutral at best, and cost-prohibitive at worst. Einride’s platform rethinks electric vehicle implementation in freight, ensuring that manually-driven EVs are operated as efficiently as possible with high utilisation to avoid wasted capacity, accounting for every possible variable.
The biggest boost electric trucks can receive to cost-effectiveness is by making them totally autonomous. Removing the driver from the equation improves the business case exponentially, making charging wait times for operators something that does not require oversight and improving the potential of scheduling without having to account for swapping drivers. Our solution can reduce operating cost by up to 20% per kilometer compared to diesel trucks with platform-coordinated electrification alone, while implementing autonomous and electric capability and an operator to Pod ratio of 1:10 would result in an additional 50% reduction in operating costs per day.
Whether by personal choice or by organisational or governmental mandate, urban diesel freight will be a thing of the past before we know it. Implementing electric and autonomous transport solutions are not only the most sustainable way forward for road freight, but will also be the most cost-effective with intelligent planning.
Einride’s own vision is to make AET the future of road freight through cost-competitive and sustainable solutions, both today and tomorrow. A comprehensive freight mobility platform turns the implementation of these solutions from difficult guesswork to intelligent planning and execution. The scaled adoption of this technology is required if we aim to eliminate – and even reverse – the impact that diesel freight has on the environment.