The transition to electric vehicles (EVs) has been at the forefront of transportation initiatives, particularly as the nation grapples for a greener and more sustainable future. This has rapid momentum in the car and light commercial vehicle (LCV) space, however, the road to an all-electric fleet is more complex for larger vehicle types, such as Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGVs).

These vehicle types are responsible for a significant portion of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions and pose unique challenges for total electrification. While EVs increasingly replace their petrol and diesel counterparts, HGVs rely on traditional fuels (diesel).

Therefore, it’s important to explore the current state of alternative fuel (AF) technology, examine the infrastructure needed to support it, and explore whether AFs could be a credible intermediate solution between fossil fuels and electric power. Let’s get into it.

The electrification challenge for HGVs

HGVs only constitute 5% of vehicles on UK roads, but they contribute 20% of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. Given the strategic urgency and need to reduce emissions, we must find an effective and efficient alternative to traditional fossil fuels for these heavy-duty vehicles. Electric HGVs are technically a possibility, but they face significant limitations.

First, the inherent inefficiency of electric drivetrains when hauling heavy loads is one such impediment. Due to their heavy batteries, EVs are typically designed with lightweight materials such as carbon fibre to enhance efficiency, but this approach is not viable for HGVs. Plus, electric HGVs struggle to achieve a sufficient range, so adding more batteries to improve their range would come at the cost of increased weight, thus further reducing efficiency.

What’s more, charging technology has made great strides, but charging an HGV would still be a time-consuming process, which is impractical for transportation and logistics firms reliant on tight schedules.

Are AFs the solution?

While total electrification isn’t feasible now for HGVs, an alternative path involves exploring a range of alternative fuels. There are many promising candidates – including hydrogen, hydrogenated vegetable oil (HVO), and biofuels – and these AFs operate more like traditional fossil fuel engines. But, with significantly reduced emissions, although not always zero, they are often called ‘low-carbon’.

The key advantage of AFs for HGVs is that they offer a familiar refuelling experience for drivers, who can fill up their tanks at existing fuelling stations. Thus making the transition smoother and more practical and leveraging the current refuelling station network. This is unlike electric HGVs that require specialised charging infrastructure.

What are the challenges of AFs?

I believe the benefits of AFs for HGVs are clear, but that’s not to say there are still equally significant challenges. For example, the number of alternatively fuelled HGVs on the road remains low, and investment in infrastructure lags behind the electric charging network. There are just over a dozen hydrogen refuelling stations in the UK, severely limiting the adoption of hydrogen-powered vehicles.

To unleash the potential of AFs, I believe substantial government investment is required. We should replicate the success of electrifying smaller vehicles in the HGV sector. This entails choosing the most suitable alternative fuel for HGVs, creating incentives for fleets to adopt them, and investing in the necessary infrastructure.

Moreover, the current landscape is characterised by competing alternative fuel types, creating potential confusion and uncertainty for businesses. A crucial step is to rationalise the system, identifying the most suitable and efficient AFs for different types of HGVs. This would help businesses streamline the transition.

Finally, there are other business considerations, such as rules and regulations around the weight that AF vehicles can carry, that will limit their use. The limit currently stands at 4.25 tonnes – articulated lorries can weigh as much as 44 tonnes – and drivers will need five hours of training to drive at 56mph.

Driving towards an AF future

A greener and more sustainable transportation system is a pressing concern for the nation, and the mainstream focus has been moving towards electrifying smaller vehicles. But I’d argue the challenge of finding efficient and practical solutions for HGVs – which account for a disproportionate share of greenhouse gas emissions – remains equally great. The AFs discussed (hydrogen, HVO, and biofuels) present a viable alternative for these heavy-duty vehicles, offering a familiar refuelling experience and reduced emissions.

Nonetheless, the limited number of AF vehicles and inadequate infrastructure pose significant challenges. To drive this transition effectively, government investment is crucial, mirroring the success of electrifying smaller vehicles. Rationalising the multitude of AFs available and streamlining the transition process will be essential. But, another key step is the payment solutions to refuel. Fleets can partner with experts who will closely monitor the evolving technological and legislative landscape and ensure they always pay the best prices and have access to whichever fuels the next generation of vehicles run on.