Volvo exec: ‘Plenty more scope’ to cut CO2 emissions from trucks

Niklas Gustafsson, Volvo Group

Niklas Gustafsson, Chief Sustainability Officer, Volvo Group. [Volvo Group]

There are virtually “no limits” to what technology can achieve to reduce CO2 emissions from trucks, says Niklas Gustafsson from the Volvo group. What will eventually hold back progress in cutting emissions are wider societal factors, he claims.

Niklas Gustafsson is Chief Sustainability Officer at the Volvo Group. He spoke to EURACTIV ahead of the annual conference of the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (ACEA), on 16 February, entitled Reducing CO2 from road transport together.

CO2 emission limits have been in place for many years in the automotive industry, so it looks a bit odd that there is still no equivalent for truck emissions. Why is this the case?

This is not as strange as it may seem. The reduction of emissions from trucks is strongly influenced by customer request for lower fuel consumption, which is directly linked to CO2 emissions.

If you look at the running cost of trucks, you’ll see that as much as one third is related to fuel economy. CO2 emission reductions are mainly driven by demand for trucks that consume less. Put simply, the best-in-class on fuel consumption will sell more, and provide better business for us as manufacturers.

EU regulators are currently considering imposing CO2 emission limits on trucks for the first time. The fact they’re doing it now seems to imply that fuel efficiency improvements have reached their limits. Have they?

Limits have certainly not been reached. There is plenty more to do. The upcoming regulation in Europe actually strengthens this customer requirement in a good way. In reality, this is a labelling directive, which mandates showing fuel consumption figures to the customer that could previously only be seen in real life. And now they will be able to see those numbers before making the purchase.

So the emissions will be measured by testing?

It will be done by a rather complex simulation model, because trucks are very different from each other. A truck can be specified in thousands of different ways on each and every component, which makes them very different from passenger vehicles. So for CO2 emissions to be as close as possible to real life, you need to make a simulation model with all the specifications you want as a customer.

We’ve seen with the Volkswagen scandal how car emission tests can be cheated. How can we be sure the same does not happen with trucks, especially since there are so many more parameters?

These simulations will be verified ex-post by real-life tests. What’s important to remember is that CO2 emissions are closely related to fuel consumption, unlike emissions for NOx and particulate matters which were highlighted in the Volkswagen case. So if the number is not correct, it will be visible immediately by the truck driver because there is a one-to-one connection with fuel consumption.

The Commission is expected to adopt a methodology this year to measure and report CO2 emissions from trucks, called VECTO. Are you happy with the way VECTO is being shaped? Are you confident that it will ensure transparent and fair comparisons on truck performance or do you have reservations?

There is still some way to go, I would say. But the process of developing the methodology is something we are contributing to, in collaboration with the different stakeholders, including the Commission, in a very good and transparent way. And we are satisfied with that. The end result, it is still a bit early to say whether it will be entirely satisfactory or not.

Are there remaining sticking points that need clarification as far as Volvo is concerned?

Yes, there are still some important details that need to be sorted out. It is very important to get this right for our customer relations and for our commitment to CO2 reduction.

Can you be more specific?

What we cannot see yet are the bigger steps that we can take by introducing alternative fuels, and renewable fuels. And that is not part of the VECTO project at this point.

And you wish it would be addressed now, or can it wait for a later stage?

To us it is very important to look at the trucking industry in an integrated way, taking into account what can be done from a technology point of view on the engine, on low rolling-resistance tyres, on aerodynamics, etc. And we are of course very focused on those improvements.

But we should also look at efficient fuels, infrastructure, logistics and other parameters that influence fuel consumption. Because you can have a very efficient drivetrain and still not be very efficient if you have a poor logistic system.

So what are the areas with the biggest potential for emissions cuts?

One of the most important ones is the modular system for trucks being able to combine truck loading modules in a more efficient way, including longer trucks like we have in the Nordic countries.

If there was a standardised modular system in Europe, you could be much more efficient. This also includes inter-modality, where goods can be moved easily between trains, trucks and other transport modes. And that holds a huge potential for CO2 savings.

This goes beyond the actual truck technology. It is more logistics.

No, we are still talking about the truck as a matter of fact. Because in Europe we have a regulatory system which prohibits using these modular trucks, except for the Nordic countries that I mentioned.

Modular trucks or giga-liners have faced resistance in the European Parliament where some MEPs labelled them “monster trucks”. So big developments there are unlikely to happen at the European level it seems.

We can see it is happening in other parts of the world so maybe Europe will follow sooner or later, we shall see. In any case, it is an area that should be mentioned because there is a high potential for CO2 reduction.

Another area is hybrid technology of course. Especially for the sort of trucking that you have in urban areas where there is a lot of stop-and-go and where the fuel saving potential of hybrid engines is highest.

Electrification has emerged as the winning technology for light vehicles. Do you see the same happening with trucks?

I think it will develop over time. For the moment it’s been done more for city buses where there is a lot of stop-and-go.

But what about long distance, heavy duty transport?

Not really on long distance, because you don’t get the same kind of fuel saving potential. But we think in the long run, electrification for long distance will come in different ways. And the beauty of electrification is that you can do step-wise introduction.

A first natural step for diesel engines is to have a hybrid version of it. The next step is to add batteries, more electronic technology, and then do a plug-in hybrid. And the third step is to drop the diesel engine and go fully electric.

So this is an interesting step-wise approach that we are doing right now at Volvo, for instance, in our buses, where we are offering the three different technologies.

What timeframe are you looking at for full electrification? You seem to imply this is a rather distant perspective. Are you saying it could happen quicker?

We can see a big potential for city buses. We are already doing it today, so we are very optimistic about electrification in urban areas.

But for long distance travel and heavy-duty loads, you seem to suggest that the diesel engine will remain dominant for many years to come. How do you see that evolving?

Hybridisation for long distance heavy-duty vehicles will come. It’s difficult to say exactly when, but it will come. And it will be purely driven by efficiency aspects, for example, by using the energy that comes from braking.

But for long-distance trucking, it needs to be combined with the introduction of renewable and alternative fuels. Because the amount of batteries that would need to be equipped on long-distance trucks would be so huge, it wouldn’t make sense. So you need to bring energy in some other form. And if you don’t want to go for fossil-based diesel, then you need alternative or renewable fuels in liquid form so you can bring the amount of energy needed for long-distance trucking.

So to summarise, looking ahead 20 years from now, you see a mixture of full electrification, then hybridisation and alternative fuels as you go from short to long distance. Is that correct?

We see more electricity, starting with buses. And regarding conventional diesel fuel, we will have more and more components coming in. We already have around 7% biodiesel, but in the future, we will have more Hydro-Treated Vegetable Oil, or HVO. Then we also see natural gas in the form of methane or biogas. And in the longer term, we see Dimethyl ether (DME) as a promising fuel.

And that means there will be continuous improvement of the conventional diesel engine, because it is very versatile and can use a lot of alternative fuels. Then electricity, but for long distance there will be a challenge—you might need to have electricity on the road to make that happen, and that of course is going to take some time.

So renewable fuels and energy efficiency are really going to be key in the short run. But there is no silver bullet unfortunately, so all these areas will require continuous effort.

Targets for CO2 emissions have not been set yet but you do appear confident that – whatever they end up being – they won’t be impossible to meet. At least, you don’t seem to regard CO2 targets as a major threat.

It will require a lot of cooperation, but if everyone is ready to do their part, big things can be achieved. We as manufacturers will need a stable and predictable regulatory environment for how to do this transition. because there is a lot of inertia in the system. So if we have that – and also profitability for our customers – then we believe it can move quite rapidly. A lot of creativity will be needed, of course, including on developing new business models and working with new stakeholders that haven’t been talking to each other before.

Can you mention a CO2 emission target which you believe is realistic for 2030?

It depends on many different aspects, but the most important one is market acceptance. If I gave you an answer purely from a technology perspective, there would be very high potential on CO2 savings, and we could show one or two trucks with extremely high fuel saving potential.

But the bigger challenge is to build a business case around it, and also to get the renewable fuels that need to be distributed to the market. But from a purely technology point of view, there are no real limits, the only limits are coming from society. So we could probably do a lot of things.

There is a lot of talk about connected cars coming closer to the mainstream. Do you see something similar happening with trucks to bring better fuel efficiency and CO2 emissions?

Yes. It is in fact much more important for heavy-duty vehicles than for passenger cars. We have approximately 450,000 Volvo trucks that are connected right now to systems where the logistic company can see where the trucks are and when the next service is needed. And there are many different aspects that you can now closely monitor, like fuel consumption.

So this is really a big game-changer for the trucking business. It’s all connected to efficiency, not just fuel efficiency but also efficiency in transport generally. Connectivity will definitely play a very important role going forward.

Subscribe to our newsletters