At the TRATON Group Innovation day in Sweden last week, caught up with Christian Levin, TRATON’s chief operating officer and head of R&D.

MT: We have known about the dangers of climate change for at least 30 years. Why are we still seeing such small numbers of low emission commercial vehicles on our roads?

CL: Customers hesitate and numbers are small – why is that? Because the incentives aren't strong enough and there is too much risk. Our customers live with very thin margins and a tough environment so why would they risk changing to something unknown?

It's partly habit but the risk is real – look how politicians have offered incentives and then taken them away. We have to create a predictable system, a little like they do now with CO2 on us. They have given the truck makers the responsibility to reduce emissions by 15% by 2025. But they should also somehow give money back to the operators who do the right thing, and make that long term, not just for a year or two.

A CO2 tax is a good thing – make fossil fuels more expensive and give that money back to the ones prepared to invest in more expensive low-carbon vehicles powered by electric and gas.

MT: Has the EU been focused on local pollutants like NOx and particulates for too long and should they have stopped at, say, Euro-5 and focused on reducing carbon emissions earlier?

CL: Yes. Local emission is no longer a big deal except in some city centres and they are handling that themselves better than national politicians. The centre of Paris for example is already closed off to these vehicles. We should have shifted focus sooner.

The view in the industry was that as long as we were developing more fuel efficient engines then we were fine, but transport volumes kept increasing at the same time. Our sales kept increasing so however fast we were reducing fuel consumption it was being compensated by bigger volumes of trucks on the roads and CO2 emissions kept increasing. But here we are and now it is some sort of panic.

MT: Can you understand why operators may feel cheated that they were sold Euro-6 in 2014 and now they are being told they will soon be obsolete and they will have to re-invest in low carbon vehicles?

CL: Yes and no – but we as a group cannot take responsibility for that. All our Euro-6 engines are compatible with bio or synthetic fuels so an operator could switch tomorrow. That is what happened in Scandinavia with the CO2 tax and incentives on biofuels transport has shifted. It's a bit of a hassle in the beginning to find a supplier and change tanks, and you may need to do a little more maintenance on the vehicle, but we will support them in that.

That is possible to do everywhere as long as the fuel is available. Yes, the airlines will want to take it but in the next five years the airline industry will not use many biocombustables at all. They say that's the only solution for them and they'll then suck up all the capacity but when will that be – 2030, 2040? In the meantime let’s use it because if we can change the running fleet it's much more efficient than only selling new hybrid vehicles. One hundred per cent of five- year-old vehicles could go bio but they don’t. That’s my biggest frustration so let’s address that.

MT: In the UK, there's a duty differential on natural gas over diesel but no incentive to use biofuels.

CL: That is completely crazy because that's the thing you can do now. Then you talk about electric and we believe that is the long-term future for lighter transport. We are developing electric vehicles but we see the limitations in infrastructure. It will clearly not be in place for everyone so it will be the courageous operators who are lucky enough to have a depot where there is enough power capacity to make it work.

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MT: The VECTO software used to calculate the CO2 emissions from trucks gives an allowance for switching from diesel to gas but again there is no allowance for building trucks capable of using biofuels.

CL: That is a challenge and I don’t have a solution. We don’t have a technical solution to measure the quality of that gas or diesel and say this is bio or fossil. You could measure it at the national level over the whole fuel supply system for instance. If you want to I think it’s doable.

If you have a gas truck you maybe start with 100% natural gas and shift to biogas as it becomes available. We believe that a mechanism could steer people to bio but the fact is we sell too few gas trucks. It's thousands across the group when it should be tens of thousands. With total sales of 200,000 vehicles you would expect 20,000, 30,000 or 40,000 of those to be gas.

MT: Operators looking to replace Euro-5 diesel are worried that buying a gas truck will be like Euro-6 – it will be an intermediate step and in five years I will have to buy something else.

CL: Yes so they wait! I truly hope gas will not be seen as just as dirty as diesel and we're investing for it not to happen but yes, it’s a preoccupation.

MT: What mix of vehicles will TRATON be selling by 2025 to meet the 15% EU target?

TRATON's VW all electric e Delivery truck

CL: I believe the first electric vehicles will be coming in especially on the distribution side. The bio will not be counted – I hope it will be but not right now – but it will be a big proportion. There's still so much we can do with diesel on aerodynamics, rolling resistance, optimisation of the entire vehicle including the service package to make sure the fuel consumption remains low across the whole life of the vehicle.

Then we have the new CD1 engine [a new 13-litre diesel coming next year] which will have revolutionary low fuel consumption. I go back to my Scania days - no one believed when we launched the new generation truck that it would bring a 5% to 10% fuel saving – but it did. We will repeat that trick and that will take us very far towards the 2025 target so we will not see a high proportion of electric by then.

To reach the 2030 target [when CO2 emissions must be reduced by 25%] with combustion technology only will be very difficult so that is when you will see the big shift happening. Then it will depend on how the legislation changes – how do we calculate bio and hybrids? But we will definitely see full battery electric vehicles to a large extent. I cannot give you a percentage because it will be wrong, but it will be substantial.

MT: If the new engine is going to be so good on MPG have you been holding a few cards up your sleeve to help hit the 2025 target which will be based on a 2020 baseline?

CL: No we didn’t save anything. If you take the D26 platform in MAN and the D13 platform in Scania, they are having their last steps in development towards fuel efficiency and are coming to an end of what they can do. We need a new engine block, a new injection system, new turbo technology and new software. We really have optimised as far as we thought possible and that is one reason MAN will get the new engine later – they just introduced their last upgrade and will continue to get good results for a while longer.

So we didn’t keep back new technology – it wouldn’t fit on the old engine. With continuous increases in the injection pressures etc we needed to change the whole engine. It is interesting to see how much more potential the internal combustion engine still has.

MT: Will there be a 9-litre version of the new engine?

CL: We are starting with the 13-litre and we will take it from there. With the TRATON modular system you could imagine developments on that single cylinder in many different ways. We're keeping that up our sleeves!

MT: While battery electric local distribution trucks make sense, won’t the amount of batteries a long-haul truck needs to carry damage the payload and productivity? Isn’t hydrogen a better bet?

CL: That is my favourite topic! Fuel cells are very expensive and hydrogen is far more expensive, energy content-wise, than charging batteries. It is also unproven in automotive environments. But we are doing a lot of work on hydrogen in both MAN and Scania. We are experimenting with different suppliers and set ups and theoretically it is brilliant. A small battery, and you produce electricity from gas tanks that can be filled up, not everywhere, but there is already quite a good network.

You don’t need charging time or to bother about a special parking place somewhere along the highway. You can run 600kms to 800kms – fantastic. But it is expensive – will the cost come down? That is the big question. I have learned that 80% of the cost of a fuel cell is product value add and that is what the automotive industry is so good at cutting out by making large volumes. If you take a battery that is 80% material cost and who knows where material costs are going? But we cannot expect the same development there. Maybe at some point the curves will cross and hydrogen will become really interesting.

MT: Hyundai is going big on hydrogen with its launch in Switzerland recently.

CL: It is really interesting what that consortium is doing, especially in Switzerland where they can make hydrogen at night with hydro-electric power when it’s cheap. Norway is the same and Scania has a customer Asko that is producing its own hydrogen and they're testing a fleet now.

Scania Asko hydrogen truck

There will be niches in the short term and in the long term, for really heavy transport, if I was going to make a bet, it would be on hydrogen. But our prediction right now, based on cost, is that battery will win. Let’s see.

We have a collaboration with Hino, and Japan has decided to be a hydrogen society just like South Korea. They are really advancing their development of fuel cells and that is one area we are discussing with them.

When do I think you will see the first commercially available MAN or Scania leave the factory with a fuel cell? 2025. So it’s not that far away.

MT: Do you see 44-tonne trucks running on batteries by 2030?

CL: Yes. By 2030 I also see fuel cells vehicles running at 44 tonnes. Lithium is still today’s technology for batteries and that with cobalt is what we will rely on for quite some years. There is enough lithium in the world – cobalt is more critical but the proportion of cobalt needed will decrease. Cobalt is needed for heat control but as we learning more we can take it out.

The cost of the raw material will fluctuate but the capacity of batteries will increase so you will not need 10 tonnes of batteries in a long haul vehicle by 2025. Maybe it will carry 5 tonnes.

MT: Scania has a truck outside with a pantograph to run on an overhead wire. Isn’t that a mad idea?

CL: It’s not mad to me. The problem will be if you have 50 trucks parked outside London and they all want to charge their batteries while the driver has his rest. You'll need a nuclear power plant at the parking area because we are talking 1MW per vehicle. If you can run 3km on batteries and 3km without you can charge at quite low amps so you level out the energy load over a longer stretch.

It’s not that expensive – it's the same cost as building a sound shield on a highway. The tricky thing is the business model – how do you charge for it?

MT: Thank you for your time.