Are electric vehicles (EV) the future for delivery vehicles?

Are electric vehicles (EV) the future for delivery vehicles?
Helen Henshaw - CAO
13th February 2023

In 13 years, the production of petrol and diesel vehicles is due to stop.

The expectation is that these vehicles will be replaced by electric versions. Electric delivery vehicles are becoming increasingly popular due to their environmental benefits and cost savings and are also quieter than traditional vehicles, which makes them more suitable for urban areas and require less maintenance.

So why isn’t everyone using electric delivery vehicles now?

Batteries mainly. There is no doubt great strides have been made in the past few years towards more efficient and cost-effective batteries for these vehicles, but EV battery costs have soared in 2022 due to rising raw material and battery component prices. To produce batteries for electric vehicles you need lithium and there is a distinct shortage of supply.

How are we going to get more lithium?

The price of lithium has increased four-fold in little over a year and there are also concerns about shortages of cobalt and nickel, two other important battery components. To meet the expected demand, a huge growth in supply is required with the automotive industry competing with mobile phone and laptop manufacturers for these precious resources.

The key supplier of lithium batteries is China. They astutely evolved an industry on the back of their Belt & Road Initiative (this included broad strategies and logistical investments in Africa as well as Southeast Asia) with a specific eye on the automotive industry transition to electrification. Growing concerns about shortages, being reliant on imports and over dependence on China has made several European countries turn their attention to mining lithium. A new mine is about to open in France and on our own shores British Lithium, a start-up, expects to produce lithium in Cornwall within five years. This could supply a third of the UK’s demand by 2030. It is expected that battery costs will start dropping again in 2024, when more lithium mining and refining capacity will be online, reducing prices. It will come as no surprise that starting up mining operations is rarely achieved without facing opposition from local communities and environmentalists, presenting a conundrum in our race to decarbonize the world.

Are there any alternatives to EVs?

Well, yes, one example is electric road systems (ERS). This involves trucks powered by overhead cables, very much like those used for trams or trolley buses. Successful trials have been held over the last seven years in Sweden, Germany and California. One key advantage of this method of transportation is that the efficient distribution of low carbon electricity via Vehicles Dynamic Charging is that it allows the battery to be downscaled in size and weight and relieves pressure on ‘static’ charging facilities. The main downside of ERS is the capital cost and some safety concerns (such as falling cables) but the electrification doesn’t need to be overhead. Power can easily be transferred from below using induction loops or contact rails embedded in the road surface.

What about hydrogen?

Hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles are also gaining traction in the transportation industry as an alternative to traditional fuel sources. The main advantage of hydrogen-powered vehicles is much like their electric counterparts, that is their ability to reduce emissions, providing a more sustainable and eco-friendly form of transportation. But there remain some significant challenges that must be overcome before hydrogen-powered vehicles can become a viable option for delivery services (flammability, problems storing and transporting hydrogen, current lack of infrastructure, limited range, need for large amounts of oxygen) and some very controversial arguments over the cleanliness of hydrogen production.

It is expected that the role of hydrogen in transport will evolve over the course of the 2020s and beyond and road transport, including heavy goods vehicles, have been a leading early market for hydrogen in the UK. It looks particularly viable for depot-based transport where hydrogen refuelling infrastructure can be more centralised and fuel-cell hydrogen buses have a similar range to their diesel counterparts. The big win for hydrogen is the ability to refuel as quickly as a petrol or diesel vehicle and no need for heavy batteries onboard.

Many western countries would need to pivot their energy supply dramatically to make hydrogen a viable mass transport fuel. The UK doesn’t have enough infrastructure today to make widespread adoption likely, but that could change given long-range investment and direction from government and industry.

Is it true that biofuels can be bad for the environment?

Yes, currently, most EU biofuels increase, not decrease emissions. The production of biofuels can indirectly cause additional deforestation and land conversion with many scientific reports indicating that increased biofuel production has a high potential to outweigh any greenhouse gas benefits. The use of food-based biofuels such as palm oil and wheat are seen as particular culprits. Plus, with one football pitch covered with crops you can power 2.4 cars in one year, but the same land covered with solar panels powers 260 electric cars in one year. The stats just don’t stack up.

What are synthetic biofuels?

This is an exciting new area of research. A new source of green fuel is being led by the F1 industry as it seeks a more sustainable future and to be Net Zero Carbon by 2030. For many years, F1 has been at the cutting edge of innovation, developing the most efficient power unit and hybrid systems ever created. Now the sport is focused on helping drive a green revolution for the entire planet.

The sport is pioneering a ‘drop-in’ 100% sustainable fuel that can not only be used in F1 cars from 2026 but crucially can be utilised by most road cars across the world. This will be unique and lab-created and most importantly can be used in a road car without making any changes to the engine. There are close to two billion internal combustion engines on the planet and whatever electric solution we find, whatever hydrogen solution we find, there’s still going to be two billion cars.

So, are electric vehicles the future for delivery vehicles? It’s complicated and it needs an effort across many different areas to create a sustainable future. Only time will tell.