Despite obstacles, the race for electric trucks is on
Using a motorized arm, a worker at the Volvo factory in Gothenburg, Sweden, slowly moves huge black blocks along a chassis: three tons of batteries that will soon power a electric truck, the flagship product of the world number 2 in the sector.
“This is where the difference is made”, explains Sandra Finer, vice-president of operations on the site. “On the production line, we use the same people and the same equipment but there, instead of placing a diesel engine, we place an electric module”.
Now mass-produced by several major manufacturers in Europe, North America and China, electric trucks are hitting the roads faster than expected, even if there is still a long way to go to dethrone the polluting diesel.
“We are living in a very exciting time,” Felipe Rodriguez, an independent expert with the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) analysis group, told AFP.
“There are four or five years, people would have said to you: ''you are crazy, this will never work. Diesel is king, it can't be beat''.
Very energy-intensive to move their many tons, electric heavy goods vehicles raise questions about their autonomy or their recharging, which requires much more powerful terminals than for cars.
But, driven in particular by regulations on increasingly stringent measures by the European Union to reduce CO2 emissions and by the massive support of the Chinese state for its national manufacturers, the sector now seems convinced that there will be no going back.
“There was a realization in the industry that they couldn't keep their diesel engines forever,” says Rodriguez. “And a race is now on to really develop and bring these electric trucks to market.”
In 2022, electric trucks have no represented only a small portion – 1 to 2% – of the main markets in the world, with 40,000 to 50,000 units sold in total, most of them in China, according to data from analyst firms.
But the main Western manufacturers such as the Germans Daimler and Man, Volvo and its French subsidiary Renault Trucks, or the other Swedish Scania have invested massively.
Tesla also wants to launch
As for the American Tesla, after its hit in the electric car, it also displays its ambitions in this segment with its “Semi” promising up to 800 kilometers of autonomy.
The cake is sizeable: the truck market is worth more than 200 billion dollars per year worldwide, with nearly 6 million units sold.
“In 2030, 50% of Volvo trucks that we will sell should be zero emissions (…) and in 2040, everything will have to be,” Roger Alm, head of Volvo Group's truck branch, told AFP.
A proportion of sales that more or less corresponds to that necessary to achieve the objectives of the Paris Agreement to decarbonize road transport, estimates the ICTT.
According to the analyst firm, a diesel truck emits around 1 kilo of CO2 per kilometre. Even with the current European electricity mix, which still includes a significant share of coal and gas, an electric truck reduces this carbon footprint by two-thirds.
Still according to the ICCT, the share of electric in Europe is expected to reach 90% in 2040.
“It's really started to take off in northern Europe and North America. Now it's moving south into Europe, but also other markets in Africa, Australia, Brazil, country by country,” says Alm.
Currently, an electric truck is still about two to three times more expensive than a diesel, according to Volvo, but prices are expected to drop sharply and they cost less to run.
With other manufacturers, the Swedish giant has supported a major European plan to increase the number of charging stations for trucks, one of the weak points for the moment.
To quickly and completely recharge a truck, you need about ten times more powerful than fast car charging stations, points out Mr. Rodriguez.
To respond to range problems, several manufacturers have chosen to invest in another electric technology: the fuel cell truck, using hydrogen to generate electricity.
Last week, Volvo tested on the open road — the first in the world– of a truck of this type, the real development of which should take a few years.