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The Mercedes-Benz eTruck concept is a 25-tonne mid-weight vehicle with a range of up to 200km, for inter-urban delivery with zero emissions. (image: Mercedes-Benz Trucks)

Powertrain mix for CVs in Europe set to diversify, but cost is critical

The European Commission looks set to continue its move away from diesel, prompting manufacturers to assess future powertrain options for commercial vehicles.

As many cities across Europe call for improved air quality, the Commission has proposed new targets for EU fleet-wide average CO2 emissions of new passenger cars and vans. Under its second Mobility Package proposal, average CO2 emissions from cars and vans would be cut by 15% by 2025 and should be 30% lower in 2030, compared to current plans for 2021.

Note that the EC has included light commercial vans with passenger cars in this proposal, despite the huge range of vehicle sizes, weights and operating duties in the LCV market. A similar proposal for trucks and buses is expected in spring 2018.

In response to this initiative from the EC, the European Automobile Manufacturers Association (ACEA) recently held a conference in Brussels to discuss powertrain options for commercial vehicles. ACEA focused its attention on the possible technologies for both long-haul transportation and the urban transport of goods and people. Manufacturers recognized the good intentions of the proposed cut in CO2 emissions, but there was certainly concern about grouping light commercials with passenger cars.

“We feel that the Commission didn’t differentiate enough between cars and vans,” said Erik Jonnaert, secretary general of ACEA. “It was very aggressive on vans. Clearly, CO2 targets can provide an impetus for innovation in the auto industry, but the current proposal is very aggressive when we consider the low and fragmented market penetration of alternatively-powered vehicles across Europe to date.

“Europe needs much more investment in recharging and refueling infrastructure before we can expect consumers throughout the entire EU to embrace such vehicles.”

Urban delivery

While many felt that any future powertrain mix would include a range of technologies, there seems little doubt that the move towards lighter vehicles in last-mile urban delivery will continue.

“In urban areas, the van is the appropriate solution,” said Volker Mornhinweg, chairman of ACEA’s Light Commercial Vehicle Committee and executive vice president of Mercedes-Benz Vans.

“Currently, 96% of vans are diesel-engine [powered]. They are extremely efficient and have a low total cost of ownership.

“For the future, we see electric vans for last-mile delivery as range is not that long, up to 70-80 km per day, so we can use less batteries. But last-mile deliveries are only 10% of the van market. Diesel will still be the backbone of our industry in the future.”

Long haul

When it comes to longer distance haulage and logistics, electric vehicles will continue to struggle to compete with other powertrain options. This is partly due to the fact that electric trucks are up to three times as expensive as diesel vehicles. ACEA believes that future powertrains, in the short term at least, will rely on compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquid natural gas (LNG) along with biomethane that can be provided from renewable sources.

“Unsurprisingly, there is no one simple answer,” said Preston Feight, chairman of ACEA Commercial Vehicle Board and president of DAF Trucks, the European truck division of U.S. giant Paccar.

“First and foremost, we have to look at safety, for the person operating the vehicle and for everyone in the operating environment. Secondly, cost—fuel is the single biggest operating cost of commercial vehicles. The affordability of alternatively-powered vehicles is key, as operators simply have to make money with their vehicles.

“Truck drivers simply cannot be in a situation where they find themselves unable to recharge or refuel quickly and easily as they deliver goods from one country to another. Thirdly, the environment. Decarbonizing the environment is important for all of us.”

“In 2030, I would envisage vehicles that are safer than today, with degrees of autonomy. Vehicles with improved durability and reliability,” Feight continued. “For powertrains, there will still be a strong utilization of diesel. But there will also be liquid natural gas and biofuels, along with some hybridization and electric vehicles. It’s going to be a mixture, where it’s appropriate to the market.”

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