Over the past decade, China has witnessed remarkable advances in new energy vehicles. An impressive set of metrics makes the case: sales doubled in 2021 compared to 2020, with 3.55 million new NEVs on the road; hundreds of new NEV models available each year; and ranges of 600-plus kilometers virtually eliminating range concerns, to cite just a few. However, heavy-duty vehicles, which are used for freight delivery, lag behind in this NEV revolution.
Heavy-duty vehicles account for only about 10 percent of the rolling fleet, but drive a disproportionate share of energy consumption and emissions. Trucks and buses contributed 74 percent of nitrogen oxides emissions, 52 percent of particulate matter emissions, and more than 50 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from road transport in China in 2020, according to the latest tally of mobile emissions by the Ministry of Ecology and Environment. China's President Xi Jinping's ambition that its carbon emissions should peak before 2030 and carbon neutrality be achieved before 2060 means that the transportation sector, in particular heavy-duty vehicles, must rapidly transition to zero-emissions technologies.
Although not an easy task, decades of technological progress position China to be a global leader in decarbonizing heavy-duty vehicles. While the fuel efficiency of diesel engines needs to improve in the short term, full electrification of heavy-duty vehicle fleets is imperative to achieve China's carbon goals. China has fuel economy and pollutant emissions standards in place to reduce tailpipe emissions from heavy-duty vehicles. However, heavy-duty vehicles with internal combustion engines will inexorably fall short of China's decarbonization targets; full electrification is a must and that process needs to start immediately. Life-cycle analyses that consider emissions from extraction, manufacturing, use, maintenance and scrapping show that electric buses reduced GHG emissions by about 20 percent relative to diesel vehicles in 2021, according to a study by Tsinghua University.
China has a track record of empowering the industrial scale of zero-emissions vehicles around the world. No tailpipe pollution, higher energy efficiency, better operating costs, less noise－China is leveraging these advantages to help electric trucks and buses conquer the territory dominated by diesel vehicles. Electric city buses are a prime example. In the past five years, Chinese manufacturers have produced about 95 percent of the world's electric buses, with more than 90 percent being deployed in China. In addition, Chinese companies are knocking on the door of international bus markets, supplying electric buses to Europe, North America and Latin America.
While the future is bright, the road has twists and turns. This is true regarding the many challenges that must be overcome to realize a complete transition to electric trucks and buses, including higher purchase costs, limited charging facilities and operational constraints. A typical electric truck is more expensive than a diesel counterpart by 50 to 100 percent mostly due to the high cost of the battery, which hinders the application of electric trucks in real cases. Charging is also critical for daily operation. Fast charging still takes a longer time than fueling, thus electric trucks turn out to be less effective than diesel models. However, trucks and buses typically travel greater distances over their lifetimes than passenger cars, so their operating costs typically outweigh the capital investment. Electric vehicles have the upper hand over their lifetimes because electricity is a cheaper energy source than diesel. Simplicity of the electric powertrain leads to lower maintenance costs as well. A study from the International Council on Clean Transportation examined the cost structure of electric and diesel trucks. It showed that the total cost of ownership of electric trucks can be lower than that of conventional trucks, and that operational savings could be realized much sooner than intuition would suggest. In some ambitious cases, a parity point of total cost of ownership between electric and diesel models can be reached as early as 2025; for most scenarios, a parity point can be witnessed before 2030.
Electric heavy-duty vehicles are gradually becoming commercially more attractive than diesel models. To accelerate this process, policymakers have an essential role to play. The policy tool kit includes various measures governing the supply and demand of zero-emissions trucks and their infrastructure that go well beyond the granting of direct financial incentives. Most notably, setting a clear road map for the phase-out of combustion-powered trucks and buses－as a group of countries did at the Zero Emission Vehicle Transition Council during the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference held last year in Glasgow, Scotland－can guide the industry's long-term vision and provide the confidence needed to make the right investments. Encouraging closer collaboration through the supply chain will make electric vehicle components, such as batteries and powertrains, more affordable. At the local level, granting electric trucks and buses the privilege to access zero-emission zones, where only electric fleets are allowed to enter, can appreciably motivate operators to transition to zero-emission trucks for freight delivery. Admirably, several proposals in an effort to promote lifecycle carbon footprint analysis and new technologies of NEVs have been presented at this year's two sessions－the annual meetings of China's top legislative and political advisory bodies, which will undoubtedly enable the NEV industry to step on the gas even more.
Electric heavy-duty vehicles can and should be integral to the set of solutions that will achieve carbon neutrality in China. A new era of trucking is coming.
The author is an associate researcher at the International Council on Clean Transportation. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.
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