Unglamorous, unloved and probably mostly forgotten, Britain’s trucking sector is nonetheless vital to the UK’s economy.
The logistics industry is worth around £13.5bn, with over 60,000 road freight businesses currently operating in Britain, according to figures from the Road Haulage Association (RHA).
And whilst the UK has a developed rail freight network, as it stands, 98 per cent of all food and agricultural products are transported by road freight, making trucking critical to the operation of the entire country.
But they are also a vital obstacle to the country’s climate goals, with HGVs currently producing nearly 20 per cent of all transport emissions in the UK, despite making up only 1.5 per cent of vehicles on the road.
Logistics groups are facing an uphill battle as the industry struggles to transition over 300,000 heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) in the UK to zero-emissions – and hit two fast-approaching 2035 and 2040 bans on the sale of fossil fuel lorries, weighing up to 26 and 40 tonnes.
Huge progress has been made in the sales of commercial and passenger electric vehicles (EVs), which are critical to automakers hitting their own looming 2030 targets.
But some in the HGV sector believe that the same progress may not be possible with heavier vehicles, due to a combination of the weight of EV batteries, charging times and pressure on the national grid.
No clear solution to solving HGV challenge
In the view of Scotland-based Hydrogen Vehicle Systems (HVS) – a start-up bankrolled by the billionaire, Asda-owning Issa Brothers and which is responsible for designing the first British-built hydrogen HGV – hydrogen is the solution.
“It’s low hanging fruit for industry to make a big difference. But if it’s not moving fast enough, something needs to be done to address it,” Pete Clarke, HVS’s co-founder and head of design, told City A.M.
“Brilliant headway has been made with battery technology in passenger cars and light commercial but the same progress is definitely not being seen in medium commercial… and particularly in the heavy sector,” he explained.
HGV drivers travel huge distances and carry heavy payloads when trucking freight on British roads, meaning the added charging downtime for electric vehicles would have a significant impact on operators’ bottom lines.
“They run on day and repeated night shifts back-to-back so they can’t afford downtime in many cases being put on charge, so many truck operators at the moment, who are trialling greener equivalents, for instance, are having to buy in some cases “two HGVs to counter one,” Clarke explained.
The weight of EV batteries, which is sometimes as high as five tonnes, also poses problems as HGVs are legally limited by the amount of load they can carry.
Truck operators could therefore be forced to choose between running an illegal vehicle or slashing their capacity, further denting margins.
Industry seeks clarity from government over hydrogen plans
Richard Hulf, managing partner and an expert in hydrogen at the investment fund Hydrogen One said that the fuel would have a “singular role” in converting HGV trucks, as well as heavier planes and trains.
In his view this would be complementary to battery powered electric vehicles – but for now it seems the industry is still stuck in an either-or mindset. A total lack of hydrogen charging points presents another rather substantive block on progress.
Jon Regnart-Russell, senior policy adviser at trade body Hydrogen UK, argued it would be “fundamental” to achieving net zero in “hard to electrify modes” modes of transport.
“Large long-haul HGVs are one of the most challenging areas for developing zero emission options due to their long journey distances, heavy payload requirements and fast refuelling requirements – making hydrogen a clear solution for the sector,” he explained.
Michelle Gardner, deputy director of policy at the industry body Logistics UK, told City A.M. that “significant uncertainty remains surrounding the most suitable alternatives, such as battery electric or hydrogen,” with hydrogen still “incredibly expensive, with a significant lack of infrastructure.”
“To be able to confidently invest, Logistics UK members urgently need government to begin road trials to determine what infrastructure is needed to support these alternatives and a clear plan from the government on how that will be implemented.”
The government is set to announce road trials of zero emission HGVs in the coming months, and is targeting 10GW of hydrogen production domestically by the end of the decade.
Whether this is enough to shift sentiment from concerned investors remains to be seen.
A DfT spokesperson said: “We’re working closely with the freight and logistics sectors to help decarbonise while supporting jobs and continuing to grow the economy. To help achieve this, we’re investing in the rollout of zero emission HGVs on our roads, as well as their refuelling and recharging infrastructure.”