Opinion: as economies grow, the use of trucks to transport goods also increases but what will the average truck on the road look like in a more low-carbon future?

My laptop recently went up in smoke and I had to get in touch with Dell to order a new one. It arrived over a week later and I started thinking about its many components and where they all came from. What surprised me  was just how international my new laptop really was. The lithium in its battery was most likely sourced from Zimbabwe and the cobalt in it from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Its aluminium probably came from Canada, arsenic and copper from Chile, tin from Indonesia and the nickel from Australia. The list goes on! 

Each of these components had to be sourced and transported around the world before landing on my desk in Cork and a key player in this transportation process was the truck. As we’ve become more and more reliant on foreign countries for things like electronics, fuel, food, and clothes, the numbers of trucks on the road has increased. By quite a lot.

The activity of trucks has increased by a phenomenal amount over the last 40 years. In developed regions such as the US and western Europe, trucking activity has more than doubled in the period from 1975 to 2015. In emerging economies such as India and China, the rise has been nine-fold and 30-fold respectively over the same period. This increase is largely due to rises in national income – when you earn more, you buy more stuff and this stuff usually needs to be transported by a truck at some point. This has driven the trucking sector to use up to 20 percent of annual global oil each year (to compare, passenger vehicles, such as cars and buses, use about 25 pecent). 

"Currently, only about 50 percent of all trucks sold globally had to adhere to some fuel economy standards compared to 80 percent of passenger cars sold"

As emerging regions continue to develop and become richer into the future, more and more trucks will be needed, meaning more and more oil will be consumed unless things change. This doesn’t bode well for a low-carbon future in line with what the signatories of COP21 envisioned in Paris a few years ago.

So, what lies in store for the future of trucks? There’s been a lot of talk about the electric car, but what about the electric truck? As you can imagine, a large electric truck is going to need a lot more batteries than a Nissan Leaf, especially considering that it’s going to be driven a lot more each year. Batteries are quite expensive (but getting cheaper), so loading up a big-rig truck to the brim with batteries today will generally prove to be a lot more expensive than investing in another diesel fuelled truck. 

Tesla recently announced their all-electric truck will be expected to hit the roads by 2019. Allegedly, it will work out cheaper than a diesel truck after two years. This is hard to believe considering the current cost of batteries, but perhaps Tesla have had a breakthrough with their battery technology.

The trucking sector will have to change considerably to realise a low-carbon future

Based on the current cost of batteries, electric might be favourable for smaller vehicles used in a metropolitan setting, such as Amazon delivery trucks or An Post vans. However, places like Germany, Sweden and the US are currently testing out overhead catenary lines which a large truck can connect to while driving and receive electrical power.

These overhead lines are pricey to install: it’s about €1.3 million per km, which would be €650 million if you were to set up overhead lines between Dublin to Cork both ways. But it’s a new technology so naturally prices are expected to fall, by about half by 2050 according to the International Energy Agency. Another, more expensive, option for those who don’t want overhead wires laced over motorways across the country is to use inductive charging. This is where coils that generate an electromagnetic field are installed in the road, while receiving coils for electricity generation are planted on the truck, allowing for wireless charging at the expense of higher costs and lower efficiency.

Electricity isn’t the only option as biofuels hold a promising future in fuelling our road freight network. Biofuels are created by taking things like cooking oil or corn and processing them into a liquid which can put into a diesel or petrol engine. It’s a simple process and you don’t even have to change the engine, although you can only mix between 5 percent to 7 percent of biofuel with regular petrol or diesel in Europe at the moment, as anything over that might cause some trouble with your engine. Certain advanced biofuels, such as that produced by Neste Oil, can achieve blends up to 100 percent, but they’re more expensive and problems arise regarding the availability of the feedstock to make the biofuels.

Elon Musk introduces the Tesla Semi electric Truck at an event in Hawthorne, California in November 2017. Photo: Veronique Dupont/AFP/Getty Images 

Making trucks more efficient will have a big role to play in their future too. Studies currently suggest that there is potential to reduce fuel consumption from that of today’s heavy duty vehicles by 30 percent to 40 percent. Currently, only about 50 percent of all trucks sold globally had to adhere to some fuel economy standards (specifically speaking, those sold in China, Japan, Canada, and the US) compared to 80 percent of passenger cars sold. There’s a lot of room for countries to start introducing efficiency standards for trucks.

Finally, improving the logistics of trucking movements can help a lot too. There is a lot of options to utilise – for example, platooning trucks (driving trucks very close together), optimising routing (using real time routing-data), creating urban consolidation centres (using one truck for multiple shippers) and crowd-sourced logistics (hiring individuals to carry out the "last-mile" of the shipping).

Considering the chaotic nature of the world around us, telling the future is hard. Certainly, the trucking sector will have to change considerably to realise a low-carbon future. Improving energy efficiency and improving truck logistics offers a relatively cheap solution in the short to medium term, and changing what fuels these trucks will have a big role to play in the long-term. While a lot of these latter measures are expensive, it’s a different matter when you start to weigh it against the cost of carbon and the negative impacts it causes. Getting my future laptop delivered with the help of an electric truck might not be all that far-fetched.

(The author has worked on a report on the future of road freight with the International Energy Agency which can be read here).

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ