Push towards zero-emission trucks can help India become economically efficient while ensuring better air quality

The freight transportation sector in India is growing rapidly, moving 4.6 billion tonnes of goods annually at present. Around 70% of the domestic freight demand today is being carried by trucks, which despite representing just 3% of the total vehicle fleet, are responsible for 53% of PM emissions.

The electrification of trucks is a critical aspect of decarbonising transport in India. Its diesel guzzling trucks must give way to  zero-emissions trucks (ZETs) -- including  battery electric trucks (BETs) and fuel cell electric trucks (FCETs). Studies and research points to the economic viability of making this switch, what India now needs is supportive policies that provide the much needed push.

There are around 5.5 million trucks plying on the Indian roads at present. While the country has promoted policies to transition to electric vehicles for public transportation buses and cars, such a push by the government for trucks is yet to be seen. Many private companies in this segment, including Tata Motors and Ashok Leyland, however, have announced plans to roll out e-trucks in the future.

Fig 1 - Electric trucks are economical, in the long run, than diesel or CNG variants, and also contribute significantly to air pollution reduction © PlugIn India

E-trucks are growing globally

According to the International Energy Agency's recently-launched annual Global Electric Vehicle Outlook report, medium and heavy duty trucks are more difficult to electrify than other road segments, due in part to the size, weight and cost of the batteries needed to fully electrify this segment.

However, progress is being made, with around 320,000 electric trucks on the roads in 2022 globally. By 2030, the fleet of electric trucks will reach almost 3.5 million in the STEPS, over 3% of the total truck fleet.

The IEA's Stated Policies Scenario (STEPS) reflects existing policies and measures, as well as firm policy ambitions and objectives that have been legislated by governments around the world.

It said slow charging of EVs is cheaper than fast or ultra-fast charging. For HDVs, overnight charging at bus and truck depots is the most convenient way to charge at rates of less than 350-400 kW, which would require close to a one-to-one ratio of depot chargers per electric HDV.

The air in Delhi is among the most polluted in the world. (Agence France-Presse photo)

Benefits of transitioning to Zero Emission Trucks

The freight and logistics sector in India that provides direct employment to more than 22 million people and is estimated to be worth $160 billion is growing but with a disproportionately large economic, social, and environmental burden. Therefore, any transformation taking place in this sector should be just and take everyone along.

A recent report states that road freight accounts for more than 25% of oil import expenditures at present — and is expected to grow over 4x by 2050. ZET adoption can eliminate a cumulative total of 838 billion litres of diesel consumption by 2050, which would reduce oil expenditures by ₹116 lakh crore through 2050.

Transportation costs are a major driver (62%) of overall logistics costs in India, accounting for 14% of India’s GDP. Since diesel fuel costs account for the overwhelming majority of transportation costs, ZET adoption can dramatically lower associated fuel costs by up to 46% over the vehicle's lifetime, the Niti Aayog report said.

A robust domestic ZET market can also transform India into a global green hub for battery manufacturing. If produced at scale, the total cost of ownership (TCO) for ZETs in the MDT segment can be less than diesel trucks, and TCO parity can be reached in the HDT segment by 2027.

With supportive policies, ZETs can achieve an 85% sales penetration by 2050. With cost competitiveness, and technology maturity, nearly 9 in 10 trucks sold in 2050 can be ZETs, the report added.

The way forward

With the right policies and incentives, battery electric trucks would be more affordable to operate than diesel, and India could become a world leader in producing electric vehicles, a new study from the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and UCLA shows.

Electric trucks could eventually become carbon neutral if charged with renewable energy, particularly solar energy when its production is highest, the researchers found.

However, achieving these benefits will require investments from the government which needs to promote policies to increase battery manufacturing and electric vehicle manufacturing and uptake. It will also need policies to support building a fast-charging infrastructure for the e-trucks.

Major private players in this segment have also shown keen interest in the transition with some of them about to launch their e-trucks. While Tata Motors is ready to launch their e-truck, Ashok Leyland, the country's leading commercial vehicle manufacturer has also showcased its advanced futuristic mobility solutions that includes Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle (FCEV) that will be powered by hydrogen.