The ‘messy middle’: How trucking will get to an electric future

electric truck future

  • OEMs, logistics companies tout varied technology solutions on the way to a zero-emissions future.

The metaphors flowed freely during a recent panel discussion as trucking experts argued for a multifaceted approach to low-carbon fuel adoption.

“We call the next couple of decades ‘the messy middle,’” said Mike Roeth, executive director for the North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE.) While an electric truck future is achievable by around 2040, Roeth said, the interim period will feature an array of sustainable technologies ranging from diesel hybrids to renewable natural gas.

Laurie Counsel, global environmental relations director for Cummins, the engine manufacturer, said trucking as an industry is often considered “a one-trick pony.”  

“But now there are so many exciting things happening,” Counsel said. “We just need to match the right technology with the duty cycle.”

An incremental approach

Counsel and Roeth were among the speakers who shared their experiences and insights during a webinar, Real-life Lessons for Trucking’s Clean Future, focused on how trucking and logistics companies are incrementally adopting clean fuel technologies that reduce tailpipe pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions.

Patrick Browne, UPS (NYSE: UPS) director of global sustainability, said the pandemic has put even greater pressure on transportation and logistics companies, and as a result the logistics giant is seeing a surge in volume. Yet UPS is doubling down on its effort to meet its greenhouse gas emissions goals: slashing emissions from global ground operations 12% by 2025 from a 2015 baseline.

To help meet this goal, UPS is relying on two levers in the vehicle division. By 2025, 40% of all fuel sources will come from alternatives to gas or diesel, with the proportion today clocking in at 24%. 

Noting that electric alternatives are “not there” for medium-duty vehicles, Browne said UPS has invested over $1 billion in compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles and fueling infrastructure over the past decade, with more and more of the fuel coming from renewable natural gas, also known as biomethane.  

Produced from the breakdown of organic material in landfills, wastewater and farms, biomethane is considered a carbon-neutral fuel and in some cases even carbon negative — meaning it takes more carbon out of the environment than it produces.

In 2019, 25% of UPS natural gas deployment was renewable, and the company is on track to reach 50% penetration by next year, according to Browne.

The second strategy is to invest in available electric and hydrogen vehicles as the fleet turns over. To that end, UPS recently ordered 10,000 electric vans from Arrival, a U.K. manufacturer.

“We’re preparing  for a polyfuel, polytechnology future,” Browne said. “You can have short-term [emissions] reductions while planning for a net zero future.”

Science-based emissions reduction strategies

Counsel touched on several consumer and product strategies that fall under Cummins’ new sustainability plan, Planet 2050, an effort to meet or exceed the greenhouse gas emissions goals in the United Nations Paris agreement on climate change. 

One tactic is a continuation of a current goal to partner with customers after the sale of the product, ensuring the Cummins engine has the greatest fuel economy. The engine maker is also using “sector decarbonization data” for both transportation and power generation to derive a “science-based target” of reducing absolute lifetime greenhouse gas emissions from its newly sold products by 25%, Counsel said.

“It’s a little scary,” she admitted, “because we are not in total control of that scenario. It all comes down to customer preference, market acceptance, speed of regulation and advocacy.  

“But we wanted to do our part and the math told us what our part was, as we all move forward to a path that leads to zero emissions.”

Policy levers

Clean truck headlines in the past week have focused on a landmark rule California approved on June 25  that will require manufacturers to sell an increasing number of electric trucks starting in 2024.  

But there are other regulations that can help nudge the market to cleaner fuels, the panel said.

Browne pointed to California’s low carbon fuel standard, which incentivizes users to use clean fuels. The regulation will allow UPS to double its use of renewable natural gas in the state next year, he said

Tax policy is another driver, he said. Because natural gas isn’t as dense as diesel, UPS has to buy 1.7 gallons of CNG for every one gallon of diesel.

“Because we were using more we were paying more taxes,” Browne explained. “We worked with a lot of states to offset taxes so different types of fuels were taxed differently.”

Regulations and incentives should target short-, medium- and long-term solutions, according to Roeth, with infrastructure and funding for fleets to buy the trucks taking priority.

“We need to be able to jog, walk and crawl. In some cases we’re crawling,” he said. “In other cases we are farther along.”

Related stories:

Electric, natural gas trucking sectors duel over who deserves funding — now

California approves world’s first electric truck sales mandate

California to fleets: Buy those electric trucks

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Linda Baker.