Despite obstacles, the race for electric trucks is on

Using a motorized arm, a worker at the Volvo factory in Gothenburg, Sweden, slowly moves huge black blocks along a chassis: three tons of batteries that will soon power an electric truck, produced flagship of the world number 2 in the sector.

Now mass-produced by several major manufacturers in Europe, North America and China, electric trucks are hitting the roads faster than expected, even if there is still a long way to go to dethrone the polluting diesel.

“We are living in a very exciting moment,” Felipe Rodriguez, an independent expert with the analysis group International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), told AFP.

“Four or five years ago, people would have said to you: + you are crazy, it will never work. Diesel is king, it cannot be beaten +”.

Very energy-intensive to move their many tons, electric heavy goods vehicles raise questions about their autonomy or their recharging, which requires terminals tens of times more powerful than for cars.

But, pushed in particular by increasingly strict regulations from the European Union to reduce CO2 emissions and by the massive support of the Chinese State for its national manufacturers, the sector now seems convinced that we will not work. back.

“There was a realization in the industry that they couldn’t keep their diesel engines forever,” Rodriguez said. “And a race is now on to really develop and bring these electric trucks to market.”

In 2022, electric trucks accounted for only a tiny portion – 1 to 2% – of the main markets in the world, with 40,000 to 50,000 units sold in total, most of them in China, according to data from analyst firms. .

But the main Western manufacturers like the Germans Daimler and Man, Volvo and its French subsidiary Renault Trucks, or the other Swedish Scania have invested massively.

As for the American Tesla, after its success in the electric car, it also displays its ambitions in this segment with its “Semi” promising up to 800 kilometers of autonomy.

The cake is sizeable: the truck market weighs more than 200 billion dollars per year worldwide, with nearly 6 million units sold.

“In 2030, 50% of the Volvo trucks we sell should be zero emissions (…) and in 2040, everything will have to be,” said Roger Alm, head of the truck branch of Volvo Group, to AFP.

A proportion of sales which more or less corresponds to that necessary to achieve the objectives of the Paris Agreement to decarbonize road transport, estimates the ICTT.

According to the analyst firm, a diesel truck emits around 1 kilo of CO2 per kilometre. Even with the current European electricity mix, which still includes a significant share of coal and gas, an electric truck reduces this carbon footprint by two thirds.

Still according to the ICCT, the share of electricity in Europe should reach 90% in 2040.

“It’s really started to take off in northern Europe and North America. Now it’s moving south into Europe, but also other markets in Africa, Australia, Brazil, country by country,” said Mr. Alm.

Currently, an electric truck is still around two to three times more expensive than a diesel, according to Volvo, but prices are expected to drop sharply and they cost less to run.

With other manufacturers, the Swedish giant has joined a major European plan to multiply charging stations for trucks, one of the weak points for the moment.

To quickly and fully charge a truck, you need terminals fifty to a hundred times more powerful than those used for fast car charging.

To address range issues, several manufacturers have chosen to invest in another electric technology: the fuel cell truck, using hydrogen to produce electricity.

Last week, Volvo conducted open road tests — the first in the world — of such a truck, which is expected to take a few years to really take off.

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