Maxus EV80

If one thing is certain as the UK heads to net zero carbon emissions by 2050 it is that no one low carbon technology has emerged to provide the answer to decarbonising heavy, long distance freight transport in the near term.

Over the next 30 years there is likely to be a mix of biofuel, natural gas, battery electric, hydrogen fuel cell and, maybe, even electric roads to gradually replace conventional diesel engines – which will also become more fuel efficient as the OEMs continue to invest in the technology.

The Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership (LowCVP) keeps a watching brief on all these developments and its MD Andy Eastlake, pictured, gave MT a recent update on progress.

Andy Eastlake

One thing the UK has not been short of is trials of alternative fueled vehicles, and there is a danger that these could become muddled and repetitive.

“There are about 10 government-funded projects going on around the country, some of them doing exactly the same thing, funded by different bits of government,” says Eastlake. “We’re in a very fortunate position that we do see this broad perspective and can say ‘hold on a minute, there’s a lot of government money spilling around with this. It needs to be focused particularly well to avoid duplication and gaps’.

“The way we work as an organisation is to bring people together and jointly understand the problem, then we can start working on how we develop the solutions and implement policy. Once we’ve got the solutions and understand them, then we can accelerate the market.”

The latest project, the government’s Low Emission Freight and Logistics (LEFL) trial, started in 2017 and involved around 300 vans and trucks run on battery electric, gas and hydrogen dual fuel with £20m of government funding through the Office for Low Emission Vehicles (OLEV) and Innovate UK. These were real-world trials of production vehicles running with major fleets so valuable lessons will have been learnt.

“That is just coming to the end now,” says Eastlake. “We are reviewing the results together with TRL and I would expect that to report publicly in summer this year.

“They were proper operational vehicles in service for at least a year, so the results will be very interesting.”

Eastlake also keeps an eye on developments around the world, as the UK will not be an island when it comes to low carbon trucks.

“Let's face it, we don’t make that many trucks here in the UK,” he says. “We are going to be reliant on purchasing trucks from Europe - worldwide probably less so - but European trucks will be dominant.

“Having said that, there are some interesting start-up companies coming through, such as Arrival with their electric trucks, but heavy mainstream trucks are likley to be coming from Europe.

Royal Mail Arrival Truck image 2

“I’m going over to see the Siemens electric highway demonstrations in Germany to get a handle on what that looks like. There was a trial in Sweden as well and we do need to maintain a really close friendship with all of our European partners and work together.”

While the LowCVP is not about to start picking winners in the race to come up with a viable low carbon truck, Eastlake says there are now some pointers to the future.

“I don’t think it’s clear what the right solution is in long-haul, zero-emission trucking,” he says. “It’s highly likely we’ll be driving them with an electric motor. That means we will have to have some batteries and/or supercapacitors to recover all of the regenerated braking energy.

“That architecture is emerging fairly clearly, but how you get the energy to do long-haul distances is a really interesting question. Is that a hydrogen fuel cell with hydrogen tanks? Is it an engine with either hydrogen combustion or even diesel combustion in the short term? Is it gas, be that bio or fossil, in the medium term?

“Is it a big battery? Unless there’s a breakthrough in batteries, I can’t see us trying to drive very long distances just with a battery. With batteries, there’s a lot of material and embedded energy in their life cycle, so we have to question is that the right way of doing long haul? I’m not yet convinced.”

Imported carbon emissions – those produced in China say in the manufacturing of batteries – have so far been excluded from the UK’s emissions targets, but can we go on ignoring them in our 2050 net-zero calculation?

“The answer is no we can’t,” says Eastlake. “Having read the Committee for Climate Change technical report, they were very clear, to their credit, that imported carbon in the UK has actually increased and we cannot ignore it. We haven’t included it in the numbers right now, but that will have to be part of the discussion. Globally, we need to talk about net zero so we have to take our responsibility for those emissions.

Life-cycle analysis

“Certainly, for us at LowCVP, thinking about life-cycle analysis is a critical part of it. We haven't got all the answers and we haven't got all of the numbers to do a really accurate model yet, but there are some fairly straightforward principles. Big batteries are highly energy intensive. If you've got a big battery, it takes you an awful long time to get to a carbon payback position. The trick is to get the right size battery for the task.

“One of the trials we've been involved in is an urban delivery operation here in London, with very low mileage, 30 or 40 miles a day maximum. They wanted to buy vans with smaller batteries. The vans you can buy at the moment come with a 60 or 70 kWh battery, giving 100 miles range or more. They said ‘actually, I don't need that. Can I buy one with half the size of battery?’ The answer was ‘well, no, actually we only make this one’. Can we get people to make modular battery packs so you can buy one that is optimised for that job?”

What is also clear is that there will have to be transitional drivetrains that make best use of available technology, rather than waiting for the perfect solution.


“Personally, I'm a great believer in the near term of things like range extenders,” says Eastlake. “Get a battery of moderate size to do the bulk of your short journeys on electric in urban areas. Then, if you are doing a long distance, you haven't got anxiety about range.

“Interestingly, I was recently having a conversation with a government minister and I don't think that the public - we're talking about cars now - has range anxiety any longer. It's now charge anxiety. It's not ‘can I get there?’, it's ‘can I charge when I get there? Is the charger going to be working or is it going to be blocked?’

“In the truck sector, there are still a lot of options on the table. Hydrogen, electric highways, battery in some applications without a doubt, and I genuinely don't rule out long-term internal combustion. We are now getting to the point where combustion engines are very clean in terms of air quality. Emissions are barely measurable now, be that particulates or NOx.

“If we can put a low carbon fuel in them, on a net carbon emissions basis, it starts to make quite a lot of sense and the infrastructure implications are a lot easier. There may be a long-term role for combustion of very low carbon renewable fuels.”

Waitrose truck at CNG refuelling station close up panel 326x245

One potential problem with biofuels – be they diesel or gas – is that there will be stiff competition for the limited quantities available from other even harder to decarbonise sectors like aviation and heating for buildings.

“Certainly, in the near term, we've got to try and decarbonise the combustion engine as much as we can,” says Eastlake. “But we're not going to have enough to do what we need to do to decarbonise, whether you put it into the grid or into trucks or whatever. At the moment, I don't think there's enough thought about how valuable energy is. We're so used to filling up our car or truck with diesel that we don't really think about how much energy is there and how valuable that is.

“When we to get things like bioresources, which are potentially very valuable in a decarbonising world, hopefully we'll start to think seriously about energy and its value and therefore put it into the place where it has the most impact.

“A van is a great example. Electrifying urban driving is really powerful. You can displace probably twice as much petrol or diesel for each kWh of battery power in an urban environment as you can on a motorway. If we’re trying to displace diesel, the most effective place to electrify is an urban operation. Running up and down motorways on a battery is certainly not as efficient.

“It’s the same with gas. The right spot for gas, fossil or bio, is actually in long-haul trucking. The data that's coming out of the LEFT trial clearly shows that the CO2 benefits and maximum efficiency are in that long-haul heavy operation.

"Using gas in city centres isn't the best place. It doesn't displace as much diesel there as it does in long-haul. Should we think about incentivising gas into that operation and incentivising electricity into urban operations and starting to pick winners, logical engineering winners, rather than political winners? I think that's probably a good way of going about it.”

Wind farm

If the long term future, however, is electric, be it with batteries or hydrogen fuel cells, this will only be a low carbon alternative if the electricity used to charge batteries or make hydrogen by electrolysis comes from renewable sources such as wind or solar. While the UK is making good progress in developing renewable energy, will it keep up with the drive to decarbonise road transport?

“The grid has made massive strides, and has achieved a 60% reduction in the carbon intensity of our electricity over the last six years,” says Eastlake. “Scotland already has 130% of the renewable electricity it needs. It's not always at the right time - electricity is a tricky thing to store and that's one of the problems with it. Conversely it is also highly mobile so using the grid and vehicle batteries as a flexible store may be a significant advantage.

“Almost anything can be done if you have enough electricity. You can make a diesel substitute combustion fuel or create hydrogen by electrolysing water. Both are highly energy intensive and so can be very expensive.

“If you have infinite amounts of renewable electricity, you can create almost anything you want. But we shouldn't aim for a world where we just rely on some infinite resource. Nothing comes for free in this world and we do need to think carefully about what we use our valuable renewable electricity for.”

As David Cebon argued recently (MT May 25) making hydrogen is currently a very inefficient use of renewable electricity.

“This is one of the arguments against hydrogen,” agrees Eastlake. “If we use renewable electricity to make hydrogen by electrolysing water, compress it, transport it, put it into a truck, run it through a fuel cell to make electricity to run a motor, I've effectively lost half of the electricity that I would have had if I put that straight into a battery. We need to think about the efficient use of renewable electricity and the pathways we need.

Hyundai hydrogen truck

“What's our objective? We've got to have clean air and low carbon. We've got to keep to that principle of efficiency throughout. There's no point in us wasting half of the energy and then berating the driver for not driving efficiently. Let's try and get an efficient system.”

The other issue with hydrogen is that its energy density is a lot lower than diesel or even natural gas so getting enough for a decent range on to a 6x2 tractor with limited space for the heavy, bulky tanks will be difficult.

“Hydrogen is tricky stuff in that it will escape very easily,” says Eastlake, “so you have to be quite careful with it. You need to really compress it to get the density. Some cars have 700 bar tanks but most trucks are around 350 bar.

“If you puncture that tank, it's a big bang so they have to be very robust. If I've got a carbon fibre wound tank, there's also quite a lot of embedded energy in producing it.”

While the government does not want to start backing technology winners, preferring to set targets and let the market decide how to achieve them, vehicle manufacturers are warning that without better support for recharging infrastructure the take up of low carbon vehicles will be held back. 2050 is only 30 years away so moving from a 99% fossil fueled truck fleet to zero emissions is going to require some big changes – and fast.

“The government knows we've got to be thinking about what is the right solution for the heavy truck industry,” says Eastlake. “We have to be making decisions during this decade. We haven't got long to do more trials. We have got some time to start thinking about what questions do we still need answers to, and how do we get those answers before the second half of this decade.

“We need a decision on the infrastructure system that we're going to have to put in place. Is that going to be a whole lot of hydrogen stations all over the country with a commensurate transfer of the gas grid to hydrogen? Do we make hydrogen for transport by road and leave the grid with natural gas? If we're going to put catenaries up over all our motorways, that's not a small task and we're going to have to think about it quite rapidly.

“One of the things we're talking about is what trials do we now need to do on trucks over here in the UK. I believe we don't need to trial gas trucks any more. We know how they work. We know they're economic, given where the fuel price is. We know you can buy them as the OEMs are making them at production scale.


"With hydrogen, there are still some technical questions. We haven't yet got a hydrogen fuel cell truck available in the UK. We haven't yet got a big battery tractor unit here in the UK. We're looking over the fence to Nikola, Tesla and people like that but those are still a little way off.”

The government has committed to retaining the 50% duty discount on natural gas over diesel until 2032, and as well as being economically viable for many long haul operators, natural gas delivers CO2 reductions of up to 20% compared with diesel, so gas is clearly a worthwhile step on the road to net zero. But with Hyundai hydrogen trucks on trial in Switzerland and Iveco teaming up with Nikola to develop battery and fuel cell trucks many operators worry that there is no point investing in gas as it will be obsolete within a decade.

But Eastlake argues: “Personally I think hydrogen's still got quite a few questions to answer. It's a lot more effort to make hydrogen than to create gas. We can get more renewable biogas into the mix. There's still more capacity there.

“The gas supply companies are putting in stations, and they're not doing that for one or two years. They're doing that because there is a clear role. Whether we'll maintain the gas duty differential, or whether fuel duty will still exist in its current form in 2032, is another question entirely.

Gasrec UKs first Bio LNG refuelling station

“Personally, I would love to see a differential duty for renewable gas versus fossil gas. At the moment, whether you run your truck on fossil gas or 100% biomethane, you're paying the same amount. That's wrong, in my view. We've got a commitment from some big, blue-chip companies like John Lewis and UPS to used 100% biomethane for their heavy vehicles. The operators, the guys at the coalface, are saying this is a good solution for this next generation of trucks.

“I am quite reserved about hydrogen at the moment and we probably need another four or five years trialing hydrogen trucks. We might be shaping the market in 2025 to say ‘here's a handful of hydrogen trucks and this is how they work. These are the problems getting hydrogen to them’. You wouldn't be talking about any mass uptake of anything like that until the 2030s maybe.

Siemens ehighway

“The same goes with a long-haul electric catenary system. Yes, there are trials in Sweden and Germany but there are still a lot of questions. We haven't gone electric on all our railways yet - if we can't get that sorted, would you start on motorways?”

While there is an appetite among many urban delivery operators to switch to battery electric vehicles, the lack of grid capacity is often a barrier.

“The Electric Vehicle Energy Taskforce was looking at exactly those issues and how do we grapple with them,” says Eastlake. “The big piece of the jigsaw is how to charge them overnight smartly. What we need to do is to join up the thinking about those vans being charged during the night. Businesses need electricity during the day. Houses need it in peak time in the early evening. There are enough electrons. But they're not necessarily in the right place at the right time.

UPS Arrival Trucks

“At the UPS Camden depot they do smart things with energy storage. DPD is saying if we've got a battery on a van, and that van comes back to the depot at 5pm then we're prepared to sell some of that energy back to the grid at peak price and recharge it overnight. You can then start to do something interesting to change the economics and actually help the energy system.

“The point of that programme was to join up the people making and running vehicles, the people making and selling energy and the people delivering the interfaces, both wires and chargers. Between us, there's quite an elegant solution. We can minimise the amount of investment needed to get the system we need. If we work apart, the investment into the grid is going to be billions of pounds.”

Prime minister Boris Johnson unleashed howls of protest when he recently announced plans to bring the ban on new petrol and diesel vans forward from 2040 to 2035.

“Essentially, the government was responding to the Committee on Climate Change,” explains Eastlake. “The 2040 timeframe was in the original Climate Change Act and the ‘Road to Zero’ policy document rippled out from there. With the net zero by 2050 commitment, the committee - quite rightly as that's their job - said 2040 isn't going to cut it and you need to do this by 2035 or earlier.

“We agree with them. We think we are going to have to do it by 2035 or even earlier. Now it’s out for consultation. The bit that was lost in media was ‘this is the government's view. What does everybody think? Can we do it? How can we do it? Do we need to change the timing? The definition?’

“There was a lot of criticism about the original Road to Zero target that said ‘we want cars and vans to be effectively zero emissions in 2040’. What does ‘effectively’ mean? Are hybrids in or out? Does that mean regular hybrids or plug-in hybrids? That sort of uncertainty is very unhealthy. Whether or not the target is too ambitious, if it's clear, at least we know what we're shooting at.”

The other danger is that, in the transition phase to alternative fuels, the bulk of trucks and vans on the roads will still be using diesel but all the investment will be in electric and other refueling facilities. Could this lead to diesel shortages?

“I'm not worried about the ability to buy fuel in the long term,” says Eastlake. “I think that the market will sort itself out. What's interesting is that we're now seeing Shell repurposing a forecourt in a city centre to purely electric. That's a very strategic approach from them and, I think, rightly so. This is where we want to electrify.

“It's about how we transition. Electrifying city centre miles, be they by truck, car, bus or whatever, has got to be the right thing to do in the near term. If we're going to electrify anywhere, that's the place to do it.

“How we handle motorways and the strategic road network needs a bit more thinking about. Highways England are doing exactly that: what do we do about the longer journeys?

“It might be that a strategically placed hydrogen refueling network to support long-distance journeys with sufficient battery capacity to cover your city centre zero-emission zones is the right model.”

Renewable obligation

One way every truck operator is already cutting carbon emissions is through the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation, which currently requires that 9.7% of fuel for road vehicles is derived from renewable sources (B7). The RTFO has been complicated by the introduction of “double counting” of RTFO certificates where fuel is derived from waste products rather than crops and as a result the actual percentage was only around 4% when the figures were last reported. So should the government be upping the theoretical renewable blend to 10% (B10)?

“That is exactly the message we're taking to government,” says Eastlake. “The RTFO is a minimum. There are some really good renewable diesels out there. They don't get the crack of the whip that maybe biomethane does.

“We have recently published a renewable fuels guide and we've got to focus on increasing the amount of high blend renewables in the heavy market. We're probably at about 3% at the moment but I think we might have a chance to challenge going up to B7 in that sector.

“To deliver the RTFO, my personal view is that we need to have an increase in the high blend renewable fuels used in heavy trucks. Having said that, it's not just about the volume of renewables. It's about how renewable is it? Let's not just do it all with double counting waste.

“Our approach is to maximise the greenhouse gas savings whilst meeting or exceeding the RTFO targets. It was great to see the RTFO extend up to 2032. That sends a real message the market. We want renewable fuels in our transport sector. We acknowledge we're going to be using these fuels out into 2030s, so let's minimise the impact of whatever we're burning.”

Another area of government policy that could have a big albeit indirect impact on decarbonising transport is domestic heating. The dash for gas central heating as a low emission, low cost alternative to coal and (non-renewable) electricity has left the UK with a huge headache when it comes to cutting carbon emissions from homes. One possible solution as we green our electricity is to replace gas boilers with electric heating. With 26 million boilers installed that would be a huge task but would reduce demand for biogas in the home heating sector, making more available for trucks. But at the moment the Renewable Heating Incentive (RHI) is at odds with the RTFO.

London chimneys


“There are some interesting nuances,” says Eastlake. “The RHI has tailed off so if you're making biomethane, you can get a certain amount for your RHI and then, going beyond that, it's more valuable to put it into transport fuel than into heating.

“What we've got to do is to get some sense into all of those disparate incentives. In transport, the sustainability standards are also very rigorous. If you sell something as biodiesel and it's RTFO approved, it has to jump through all sorts of hoops to prove its credentials. In other sectors, renewables don't necessarily have to meet the same sustainability standards.

“One of our pieces of work at the moment is looking at can we start to harmonise sustainability standards across sectors. Bioresources are used in all sorts of ways and they're competing. It doesn't make sense to say ‘I'll put my bioresources over there because I don't have to prove that they're really sustainable. This waste might not actually be waste, but I can get away with it’.

“Again, like a lot of things, and I may be a bit biased, the automotive sector tends to do the heavy lifting. We've certainly done that on sustainability standards for fuels and bioresources. We've done that on air quality emissions. If you look at wood burning stoves, you don't have to fit an SCR system. Even off-road machinery and transport refrigeration don't have to meet the same requirements.”

While there is a debate about the environmental credentials of hydrogen, one thing that is not in dispute is that – despite attracting no fuel duty at all - it is still very expensive. The trials of hydrogen buses and trucks taking place around Europe all rely on government and EU subsidies and without those the total cost of ownership of hydrogen vehicles is for now prohibitive.

Aberdeen hydrogen First Bus

“Hydrogen doesn't make economic sense at the moment,” says Eastlake. “These are all funded projects and it's still got a long way to go. Gas doesn't actually need funding any more. The economics of buying a gas truck and running it for an operator stack up. Even without any duty, hydrogen is still not quite there yet.

“Gas has moved on. The numbers stack up, and people are putting the stations in commercially, without government funding. That says it all.”

Perhaps a more fundamental question than how the UK transport industry cuts carbon emissions is can we manage with less? While a lot of road transport is for the essentials of life, more and more demand is fueled by consumers’ increasingly unrealistic demands for strawberries in the middle of winter and next day delivery of everything from shoes to American-style fridge freezers. Maybe making the whole system more efficient and reducing the public’s expectations would be a better way to save the planet?

“That's a really interesting question,” says Eastlake. “There's a new document coming out soon, the ‘Transport Decarbonisation Plan’, which the government trailed at the end of last year but was delayed by the election. They have absolutely realised that if all we do is change all of the cars and vans and trucks to zero emissions we’re just going to have a zero-emission traffic jam.

“There will still be huge congestion if we don't improve the efficiency. So no, we can't just decarbonise and carry on doing what we do today in the same way. We've got to think differently about the efficiency of our moving people and goods around.

“We buy stuff on Amazon and don't think about the cost of the delivery. It's not factored in there, so that delivery is perceived as being free and it's absolutely not free. It probably costs a lot more than some of the goods that you have delivered.

“We need to somehow price that in because people respond to price signals. There is going to have to be a different perception about the way we live. That doesn't mean that life has to be any worse, or that we all go vegan and sit at home in hemp trousers. But we're going to have to be more circumspect and thoughtful about what we do.”

Price signaling to make people wake up to the true cost of modern life could include a carbon tax in some form. Fuel duty could already be labelled a carbon tax in that diesel attracts double the duty of gas while electricity and hydrogen are zero rated. But manufacturing and operating any vehicle involves emitting carbon over that vehicle’s life.

“There's going to have to be a carbon tax,” says Eastlake. “My sense is that road user charging that was politically toxic 10 years ago is coming back onto the agenda. Everyone understands we can't go to a transport system that has no taxation for its use. There's no fuel duty or VED on hydrogen and electric vehicles so suddenly you've lost £33bn if you just transfer into those.

“Nobody in their right mind thinks that's sustainable, so we've got to find another way.”