Special feature

Heading towards a greener future

With the imperative to reduce carbon emissions becoming ever stronger, some international moving companies are starting to take steps towards adopting more sustainable truck fleets and switching from traditional diesel-powered engines. But how easy is it for FIDI movers to adopt new ‘greener’ vehicles – which include electric trucks? And what will help or hinder the transition over the next few years? Andrew Bennett investigates.

In the EU, trucks and buses account for only two per cent of vehicles on the road, yet they account for almost 30 per cent of vehicle emissions as a majority of these heavy vehicles are powered by diesel engines and cover high mileages.

In 2021, the 6.4 million trucks weighing more than 3.5 tonnes registered in the EU, and 740,000 in the UK, generated considerably more CO2 than passenger cars. And – so far – only a few thousand electric commercial trucks operate on Europe’s roads.

While FIDI Affiliates know they need to make their business operations more sustainable, there is a considerable amount more to do on the journey to switch to lower-carbon fleets, both for household goods moving companies and the wider road transportation industry.

Companies are evaluating which sustainable power source is practical – and affordable – for their operations, but there are several barriers to switching truck fleets over to greener power.

Even in developed countries such as those in Europe and the US, practical concerns include the scale of the electric charging network and whether the current range of battery-powered trucks make them suitable for longer-haul moves, and the ready availability of biofuels as an alternative to diesel at the pump.

We can expect to see faster take-up of both ‘greener’ fuels and trucks that use them in the next few years, driven partly by legislation; some companies are already among the early adopters.

In another development, a clinical trial being conducted in the UK may prove to be a game-changer for existing diesel fleets, once the results have been concluded (see box, below).

First adopters

Scandinavia is among the leading global regions in terms of sustainability, and Finnish Affiliate Niemi is proud to be making the transition to a net zero emissions fleet by 2030.

The company started a 10-year fleet transition strategy in 2021, which will mean replacing all its diesel vehicles with a mix of electric trucks and vehicles that run on biogas, along with the possibility of adopting hydrogen-powered trucks.

Of the company’s fleet of 161 vehicles, 10 run abroad on the international routes across continental Europe. These currently run on renewable diesel, but Niemi is looking to replace them with liquified biogas.

By the end of this year, 15 per cent of the company’s fleet should comprise electric vehicles. Currently, while these trucks are good for shorter distance work, they are not the ideal choice for long- haul international travel.

Ville Häyrynen, Fleet and Sustainability Manager at Niemi, said: ‘Because the distances are so far (across Finland and beyond) electricity is not yet a viable option… we still need a little bit more range. And an improved coverage in continental Europe (in terms of a charging network).’

Niemi aims to be carbon neutral by 2030 and, as well as changing its fleet, is among those who use sustainable packing materials and manage an overall company sustainability programme.

‘We must do something’

Häyrynen added: ‘The main driver is that we have to do something. We’re on a very unsustainable platform, thinking about fossil fuels in general. So, we must have some solutions on the emission side, and because we’re going to run out of fossil fuels at some point.

‘We have to look at alternatives and, better early than later (to adopt them).’ Because of forthcoming legislation, he believes those companies that don’t convert to alternative power sources will ‘get left behind’.

For Niemi and others who are adopting new, lower carbon technology, the motivation is about doing the right thing. But in the longer term, despite the considerable upfront investment cost, new technology may prove a good economic decision too.

Häyrynen says that, while electricity prices are currently high in areas including Europe, ‘in the long run, electricity is also probably going to be cheaper than diesel’.

While the investment price in electric-powered trucks compared with diesel may look unfavourable, the balance is shifting, and electric vehicles are becoming increasingly practical for fleet operators running shorter distance routes.

Significant cost savings

A study for EU cleaner transport campaign group Transport & Environment says the transition to electric disruptors should happen faster than some may predict.

‘By 2035, 99.8 per cent of new electric freight trucks will be cheaper to own and run than diesel trucks, while carrying the same weight of goods over the same distance and journey time. In most cases, electric trucks will beat diesel trucks on the total cost of ownership even sooner,’ it says.

Writing about the survey on LinkedIn, James Carter, strategist at Future Mobility, said the findings are significant because of the cost savings in running fleets.

‘Conservatively, an electric truck will save its operators over 50 per cent in operating costs, which means a complete transformation for freight and logistics,’ he writes. ‘Anyone running a diesel truck will be drastically uncompetitive.’

While cost is also a problem for fuel cell powered trucks – which will mean so-called ‘FCEV’ trucks will adopt very niche uses in transport – large markets like Australia and North America may take longer in adopting electric power as distances are further and the speeds at which they travel are higher.

However, according to Carter’s article, the North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE) has discovered that 50 per cent of heavy duty truck use cases could ‘go electric immediately’.

Back in Europe, Transport & Environment freight manager Fedor Unterlohner wants to see tougher legislation to compel truck manufacturers to produce more electric trucks – rather than the current voluntary arrangements – which would ultimately mean these vehicles becoming more affordable for transport companies including international movers.

‘We don’t think that the burden should be put on the transport operators and hauliers who are usually very small,’ he said.‘They might not have the financing power to do that. But if you mandate the truck makers, they have to scale-up production. That means economies of scale, (so) the vehicle costs will go down and the hauliers and transport operators will benefit from that.’

A focus for Transport & Environment will be trying to change EU CO2 standards, which currently do not support manufacturers well enough, considering the volume of electric trucks they manufacture.

‘European legislation is way too weak to mandate them to bring more trucks on the road,’ he said. ‘We do know that there are a lot of transport operators struggling to buy the clean trucks. They just don’t get them because they’re not being produced.’

He added: ‘For these really small-, and medium- sized enterprises – operators with a handful of trucks – they will need government support for the first years, because at the moment, these trucks are very expensive, because the production volume is so low.

‘So we really need to get the scale up so that everyone benefits. There’s a role for larger fleet operators, that have the financial capacity to move forward. There are also a number of European countries that offer funding and financing schemes.’

Partnership pays

Johannes de Kam, a PhD researcher focused on global mobility, and teaching fellow at the UK’s University of Warwick, has run a series of workshops for OMNI about how household goods businesses can become more sustainable.

He says the speed at which companies can switch to more sustainable fleets is entwined with the availability of infrastructure, including ease of access to networks such as electric chargers and alternative, lower carbon fuels.

‘The big difference between regions and countries is in how easy it is to change over,’ says de Kam.

‘In some countries, particularly the western nations, including those in northern Europe, they have started to push into this, but even in the UK – for example – if you look at the electric recharging points for cars, availability is not guaranteed everywhere, all the time.’

While an electric charging network for personal cars has been developed more rapidly, en route charging infrastructure for trucks is mainly ‘still to come’.

However, across the logistics industry, companies that offer last-mile delivery have embraced electric power in their van fleets in some markets.

‘You see the urgency (to adopt the use of alternative fuels) coming through, but the infrastructure needs to grow and develop a lot further,’ says de Kam.

Many of the organisations that drive change are corporations mainly located in Europe and North America. De Kam is concerned this geographical concentration of power could hurt the drive towards true sustainability, unless corporations embrace real partnership with their suppliers.

‘The difficulty is that you have the corporations that drive the industry predominantly located in Europe and North America. If we’re not careful, the decisions that are made within these corporations – for example to meet their net zero target – will see demand being driven down through their supply chains.

‘This could translate to demand on the (moving) industry without empowerment of the industry (to be able to deliver the changes required). The UN sustainable development goals (SDGs) are very clear that one of the underpinning philosophies is that there should be capacity building, particularly in developing countries.

‘What is needed is a conversation between the client and the vendor on what the transition time should be, and how, for moving towards more sustainable trucking,’ he adds.

Realistic timescale is crucial

A realistic timescale for the industry switching to more sustainable forms of trucking will be crucial, but this process will not be able to move any faster than the roll-out of the infrastructure required. So major changes will not happen overnight.

Some moving companies are already conducting moves on a city-to-city basis with electric trucks across shorter distances, but moves across greater distances can be more of a challenge using battery power.

‘If the infrastructure is developed and it becomes easy to use, sustainable trucking will become adoptable at scale in the same way that household recycling has been.

‘Countries that do well at recycling are those that have made it easy for people to do it,’ adds de Kam

Autonomous convoy trucks are on their way

Just a few years ago, it may have seemed like science fiction. But with major automotive and technology manufacturers hard at work together to overcome the hurdles, autonomous trucks may be closer to becoming an everyday sight on our roads. ‘Automation’ does not mean all trucks will be completely self-driving in future. It spans six levels ranging from zero (no assistance) to Level 1 (light-driving assistance systems) through to Level 5 (fully automated driving). These standards are defined by SAE International, formerly the Society of Automotive Engineers.

Forbes magazine looked at automated trucks recently and, according to writer Steve Banker, companies such as TORC and TuSimple are currently competing to bring Level 4 trucks to the market.

‘Level 4 trucks can provide all driving under certain conditions. In the near-term, those conditions include departing from a depot or distribution centre close to the interstate (in the US), driving on interstates in the Southwest (where the weather is not as harsh), and then arriving at a depot or distribution centre close to the exit of an interstate,’ he said. However, executives at TORC, a company that has been developing autonomous vehicles since 2007, say that Level 4 autonomous semi-tractor trucks won’t be seen for several years.

What is likely to be seen much sooner – from this year – is another kind of autonomous truck that does not fit the six-point scale. This will be a truck that runs in a convoy. Technology developed by a company called Locomation enables one driver to pilot a lead truck while a follower truck operates in tandem through Locomation’s system.

This allows the drivers following the main truck to log off and rest while the truck is in motion. This will allow drivers to drive further, without exceeding maximum service hour regulations.

AGM Group carbon capture trial ‘a game-changer

AGM Group, parent company of moving and relocation brands including Abels Moving Services, Bishop’s Move (not affiliated to FIDI) and Gerson Relocation in the UK and the Netherlands, has been taking part in a trial investigating carbon capture, which it believes will be a game-changer.

The British-based moving group is participating in the study – which also involves a large fleet operator and a company operating smaller diesel-powered delivery vans – in road-testing an innovative technology. It is the only moving company taking part in the research.

Two identical 18-tonne trucks from the AGM Group moving fleet were chosen and one fitted with

a new carbon capture device. This was fitted onto the truck’s existing exhaust system without requiring modification to the chassis or bodywork.

Initially, after being run for an hour, the vehicle fitted with the device produced 68 per cent fewer CO2 emissions compared with a truck with a standard exhaust. Subsequent tests every two months since the start of the trial have recorded a 97 per cent reduction.

Carbon from the ‘catcher’ device is recycled once the device is emptied and has been used for purposes including manufacturing carbon fibre.

Full results from the trial are expected to be published this summer in an academic journal, and Kirk Dugard, Group Chief Operations Officer at AGM, says: ‘It’s quite a ground-breaker and we are excited to be involved.’

With AGM’s European trucks covering around 100,000 km every year, use of the new technology could provide the company with significant savings. It may also offer a more affordable way for moving companies and smaller transport operators to convert to greener fleets – as some of these currently find the cost of new electric trucks prohibitive.

When published, this carbon capture trial may open the door for movers and other fleet operators to extend the life of their diesel fleets in an environmentally sound way.

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