The future of propulsion in commercial vehicles

In 2017 the UK Automotive Council, in association with the Advanced Propulsion Centre, released a report of thought-provoking and dynamic predictions for the advancement of the Autonomous, Connected and Electrified trend.

Recently, we caught up with Dave OudeNijeweme from the APC to see how the industry is faring in this unprecedented era of technological advancement. Here we discuss the challenges of developing technology for multiple vehicle life cycles and the pressures on the industry to find economically sustainable solutions.

As part of the 2016 Paris agreement on climate change, the UK Government has committed to reduce CO2 emissions by approximately 80 per cent (from 1990 levels) by 2050 and is looking into more ambitious targets. Transportation is currently the largest contributing sector and when considering the continued growth of both passenger and goods haulage miles and the lifecycles of ships and planes it is a significant challenge to meet these targets.

In recent years there have been massive advances in the development of batteries, in both performance and cost. This is hugely beneficial for the passenger and light duty commercial vehicle sectors and for shorter mileage solutions. However, for heavy duty vehicles e.g. 44 tonne long haul trucks, deep sea shipping and long haul air this trajectory of battery development is unlikely to be sufficient for full electrification. Thus, Dave comments, we must look at achieving decarbonisation through alternative ‘green’ options; not just electricity but also hydrogen and liquid and gaseous fuels. With these in place, efficiency, including through means of hybridisation, is the tool to ensure these solutions can be commercially attractive to the end-user.

According to the APC, recent advances in hybrid technology and the growing number of low emission zones has had a huge effect on the technology choices open to the industry. Whilst it may well be impossible to fully decarbonise the heavy goods vehicle sector there is research into low carbon fuel solutions with some form of hybridisation. For smaller vehicles a zero tailpipe emissions capability is vital to comply with low emission legislation within cities. However, Dave is keen to point out that low emission zones do not just affect smaller vehicles. Any heavy duty vehicle entering a low emission zone will also need to comply with this legislation – as currently seen in London.

The introduction of zonal low emission legislation has presented many commercial vehicle users with a huge challenge. Whilst there are options to use low emission vehicles within cities, some vehicles must cross the divide between inner city and long distance, thus requiring a two power source solution. In this scenario, the APC deems a plug-in hybrid or range extender the most viable option in the short term.

Whilst the APC is supporting research into a vast number of alternative powertrain solutions for commercial vehicles, it is also keen to showcase the great developments within passenger vehicles and the technology that can be shared between all sectors. Early developments indicate that zero tailpipe emissions vehicles are more likely to be passenger vehicles and therefore large numbers of components can be shared with the light-duty commercial vehicle. This commonality is allowing OEMs to quickly and efficiently introduce zero tailpipe emission van platforms without incurring additional development costs.

Despite the threats to the traditional model, the APC predicts that thermal propulsion systems will continue to be a vital part of commercial vehicle manufacture for the foreseeable future quite simply because there is no commercially viable alternative yet. In the short term, Dave explains, this means that enhanced efficiency will be the main way to reduce CO2 emissions and this will be driven by existing EU legislation. In the longer term, however, a combination of electrification alongside either fuel cells or engines using sustainable fuels will become more likely.

The solutions laid out on the roadmap rely on technology that reduces harmful emissions and greenhouse gases. This includes making better use of a vehicle’s intrinsic energy recovery system alongside developments in advanced after-treatment systems, waste heat recovery and ancillary electrification with some hybridisation. The effectiveness of these different technologies is, thankfully for fleet owners, now much easier to assess following the introduction of a vehicle energy consumption calculation tool by the European Commission.

According to the APC, however, it is not just alternative powertrain and fuel solutions that need to be addressed in order to meet the stricter emission and decarbonisation targets. Intelligent management of fleet vehicles is also required to ensure they consume less energy, minimise emissions and reduce operating costs. It will be necessary to optimise vehicle loading to ensure that those entering these zones are operating at as close to full capacity as possible.

Another option for fleet management is to facilitate the creation of alternative delivery models. For example using larger vehicles to deliver to the outer (non-legislated emission zones) before smaller vehicles deliver into the city limits and zero emission zones.

Whilst all of the above provides a myriad of opportunity for OEMs in the commercial vehicle sector to be getting on with, in the longer term, Dave predicts that CAM (Connected and Autonomous Mobility) will impact commercial fleets by improving platooning efficiency, regulating speeds and optimising powertrains for maximum fuel efficiency and ultimately negate the need for a driver.

The rate of development within the sector is largely ahead of predictions. The APC is delighted to be supporting a huge number of companies in their quest for more efficient and cost effective alternative propulsion solutions and there is a huge effort in developing thermal propulsion machinery that is suitable for hybridised vehicles. However, Dave stresses that in order to meet the targets set for 2050 we must decarbonise all transport – globally.

“There is a long list to achieve in the next 30 years,” he says, “including better manufacturing techniques, as some of the battery and new fuel solutions such as hydrogen and e-fuels are currently much more energy intensive than existing technology. We also need to see the development of lower carbon electricity, cost effective hydrogen production and infrastructure.”

All of this, however, crosses any number of manufacturing and government sectors, and this is where the issues lie. The APC is hard at work to ensure that (for land transportation) the technology and supply chain is ready to meet some of these challenges. If this can be achieved, there is huge opportunity for replication across other transportation modes including marine and aerospace.

Set-up in 2013 as a joint venture between the UK Government and the automotive industry, the APC’s goal is to make the UK a centre of excellence for the research, development and production of low carbon propulsion technology.

Over the next ten years the APC will invest over £1 billion in projects that will create or safeguard 30,000 jobs and save over 500 million tonnes of CO2 emissions while supporting UK expertise in technology for a cleaner automotive future.