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Clean truck market sees growth despite atypical year

May 27, 2021
According to GNA’s latest State of Sustainable Fleets report, 83% of fleets surveyed plan to increase their use of cleaner fuels and cleaner technologies in the next five years.

Over the past year, the commercial vehicle market has seen major developments in sustainable truck technologies, with fleets looking to invest even more to procure more efficient equipment.

The 2021 State of Sustainable Fleets report, authored by Gladstein, Neandross & Associates (GNA), the firm that produces the annual Advanced Clean Transportation Expo, confirmed that even in an extreme outlier year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, fleets increased orders and deliveries for natural gas and battery-electric vehicles, as well as for lower-carbon renewable fuels.

“Despite a crazy year, a global health pandemic, a resulting economic crisis, the level of investment that we’ve seen in the supplier side and end-user side has continued to grow,” Erik Neandross, CEO of GNA, pointed out. “We saw that deliveries for natural gas continued to be very strong. Obviously, we all see in the headlines, the investment and growth in the battery-electric vehicle sector have continued. But we also saw growth in renewable fuels in the last year.”

The report provides a technology-neutral assessment for the medium- and heavy-duty sectors. This year, GNA updated its report with a 2021 Market and Trends Brief, an analysis examining the current state of today’s leading on-road clean vehicle technologies for fleet operators. Findings are sourced via hundreds of survey results from medium- and heavy-duty fleet operators across the U.S., as well as industry data and GNA’s independent analysis.

The 2021 report covers multiple fuels and technologies, including natural gas, propane, battery-electric, and hydrogen fuel-cell electric. And this year, GNA and its research partners looked across nine different types of applications and compared them to a baseline of diesel and gasoline, which remain the dominant players in today’s market.

“One of the things that really stood out for us is that 83% of fleets that responded to the survey confirmed that they plan to increase their use of cleaner fuels and cleaner technologies in the next five years,” Neandross explained. “There is a lot of interest from that end-user market, which is, of course, so important to make this all work.”

GNA put forward five key findings from this year’s analysis:

1. Fleets reported “superior” total cost of ownership and fuel costs savings when operating on the mature technologies of compressed natural gas (CNG) in the refuse, transit, and dedicated heavy-duty sectors, and on propane in the school, paratransit, and urban delivery sectors.

The report also highlights a major trend in the acceleration of ultra-low carbon and in many cases carbon negative renewable natural gas to complement the truck investment, Neandross noted.

2. Battery-electric vehicles are poised to become a leading clean fleet technology in three to five years. Commitments by several large fleets will require vehicle deployments in the tens of thousands per year. While vehicle costs remain high for this developing technology, and OEMs are just beginning to enter serial production, investment to build this market is already substantial and growing.

“Given the fleet commitments that we’ve seen, some of the early purchasing and orders that are being placed and therefore delivered, the OEM commitments to continue to develop and release commercial product, a lot of which will start to come online and be delivered in the next 12, 24, 36 months,” Neandross said. “Then, in the 36- to 60-month time period is when we really start to see that commercial production ramp-up and vehicle availability increase.

“There was a lot of feedback about the cost,” he continued. “Battery-electric vehicles are still fairly expensive, but there still is a lot of interest and anticipation about the overall cost savings, much like we see in CNG.”

3. Fuel producers and vehicle makers continued investing hundreds of millions globally—adding to the billions of dollars already committed—to building a foundation for hydrogen fuel cells, doubling the number of models coming to market, mostly for transit and Class 8 tractors.

“The hydrogen fuel-cell market was another standout for 2020 with a lot of news and announcements, particularly by the OEMs and the infrastructure providers who are committing and investing,” Neandross said. “We see hundreds of millions of dollars being invested in this market to build a hydrogen future. We saw a doubling of hydrogen fuel cell models coming to the market in 2020, and a lot of that focus was in transit and in the heavy-duty Class 7 and 8 truck market.”

4. Policy mandates and corporate sustainability goals are creating demand for all clean technologies and will continue to drive growth.

5. Sustainability benefits, including the emissions reduction potential of vehicles and fuel, are improving for nearly all existing clean vehicle technologies, including efficiency, renewable fuels, and cleaner vehicles. Sustainability benefits remain a top motivator for fleets.

Market perspectives

Produced with support from title sponsors Daimler Trucks North America, Penske Transportation Solutions, and Shell Oil Company, and supporting sponsors Cummins, DTE Energy, and Geotab, the report offers additional insights into the key trends shaping the clean vehicle market. The analysis covers public, private, and for-hire fleets, including school, municipal, shuttle, urban delivery, refuse, public utility, transit, regional-haul, and long-haul sectors.

And fleets have a lot to consider when determining which technology works best for their operation.

“As illustrated in the report, there are certain applications in which—at least for right now—are really good fits for certain alternative fuel technologies,” Drew Cullen, senior vice president of fuels and facility services for Penske Transportation, explained during a May 26 State of Sustainable Fleets virtual launch event with GNA. “You’ve really got to understand if your business operation or even pieces of your business operation fit into some of those different categories.

“On the diesel side of things, we’re working with [customers] constantly on aerodynamics, speed limiters, idle control, driver training—all those things that help toward the efficiency and the improvements that come along with sustainability,” Cullen continued. 

Penske works with what Cullen called a “fleet of fleets”—so, fleets large and small, grocery haulers, companies that haul steel over the Rocky Mountains, etc. Because of its wide range of customers and their applications, Penske offers diesel trucks, natural gas trucks, propane vehicles, and battery-electric vehicles. Cullen said at the end of the day it’s most important to spec the right vehicle for the specific need.

“Whatever is the best fit and makes the most sense with the customer’s business goals—the geography they operate in, the duty cycles for their vehicles—that’s what we’re going to help them move to get that vehicle in place, maintain it, operate it, and keep it running for them,” he said.

When it comes to renewable diesel and the role it could play in a zero-emission future, Patrick Carré, vice president of commercial road transport sectors and decarbonization for Royal Dutch Shell, pointed out that at least based on evidence from the European commercial vehicle market, a truly zero-emission future will depend on electric and hydrogen trucks.

“Those are the most promising technologies that would really get you to that zero,” he explained. “But in the shorter term, in the next five to 10 years, I think renewable diesel efficiency measures, much more efficient driving, telematics, etcetera—that whole spectrum is incredibly important. If you want to see CO2 reductions in this space now, those are the tools that we have at our disposal. That is something we can actually make happen today.”

Regarding the timeline for building out the needed infrastructure for electric vehicles, Rakesh Aneja, head of eMobility at Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA), said it’s difficult to put a timeframe on the infrastructure topic. However, he emphasized the importance of working with partners in the space “judiciously.”

“By 2039, our intent is to offer 100% carbon-neutral vehicles,” Aneja said, adding that in the interim DTNA has set a goal of 30% zero-emission builds by 2030. “That at least puts a stake in the ground.”

In addition to infrastructure and building the trucks, Aneja said cost parity is critical.

“In the end, trucks are business tools, cost of ownership perspective needs to be there,” he said, noting that like a multiplication problem, if any factor in the equation is zero, then the net result also will be zero.

About the Author

Cristina Commendatore

Cristina Commendatore was previously the Editor-in-chief of FleetOwner magazine. She reported on the transportation industry since 2015, covering topics such as business operational challenges, driver and technician shortages, truck safety, and new vehicle technologies. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut.

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