Warming up: India’s race to net-zero trucking

Zero-emission vehicles in India are gaining traction as a viable clean transportation solution. More original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are introducing electric two-wheelers, three-wheelers, cars, light pickups, and buses. Although heavy-duty trucks account for 40% of emissions and fuel consumption from road transport, they have been lagging in this transition. But we are beginning to see signs of change.

At the Auto Expo 2023, we saw zero-emission truck (ZET) models from leading manufacturers for the first time. India’s top manufacturers displayed trucks with battery electric, fuel cell electric, and hydrogen internal combustion power trains. These vehicles covered the differing weight and range requirements for typical truck operations.

For battery electric trucks, most OEMs seemed to prefer lithium iron phosphate batteries for their reliability, safety, and lower cost over the higher energy density and more expensive nickel manganese cobalt batteries. For fuel cell trucks, all the models displayed used stored hydrogen fuel in multiple tanks at a pressure of 350 bar. Cummins (a leading global diesel engine manufacturer) also showcased fuel cell engines with 125 kW and 240 kW ratings for heavy-duty vehicles, hinting at the new era. Table 1 provides an overview of the prototypes of zero-emission trucks and other notable models that have garnered attention in recent months.

Liquefied natural gas (LNG) trucks were also featured at the Auto Expo in displays decorated in green. However, while LNG powertrains may be more efficient and economical in favorable conditions than other diesel internal combustion engines, portraying them as a zero-emission is incorrect. An ICCT study on life cycle emission analysis of passenger cars showed that LNG engines might, in some cases, lead to higher emissions due to methane leaks during extraction, transport, and operation (at higher temperatures). The ICCT is preparing a similar study to compare lifecycle emissions from different power trains of heavy-duty vehicles in India.

There are chiefly two reasons for OEMs showcasing so many different power trains. First, there’s a lack of clear guidance from the government to help narrow focus. More than that though, OEMs are seeking to address the different duty cycles and demands placed on trucks. Trucks are used for a wide variety of operations in various terrains and environments. A truck operating in a mine in Chhattisgarh is very different from one carrying parcels on an expressway or one delivering rations to remote regions in the Ladakh. OEMs believe, therefore, that each power train may have a specific use case. For example, battery electric trucks are being trusted for short trips and last-mile deliveries, fuel cell and LNG trucks are being used for long-haul, and hydrogen internal combustion trucks are being used in areas with infrastructure constraints.

The presence of battery electric, fuel cell, and hydrogen combustion models at the Auto Expo shows that Indian OEMs are entering the starting blocks in the race to zero-emission trucks. Tata’s net-zero commitment for commercial vehicles by 2045, made at the Auto Expo, reinforces that idea, as does Volvo Group’s already announced 2040 net-zero target.

Apart from the excitement of the Auto Expo though, other developments in the field are also promising. India’s leading business conglomerate, the Adani Group, recently ordered 400 electric trucks from leading Chinese manufacturer BYD for its port operations. These trucks are scheduled to be deployed this year; a few are already operating. Adani Enterprise, an Adani Group company, has also signed an agreement with Ashok Leyland and Canada’s Ballard Power to launch a pilot project in 2023 to develop a 55-tonne hydrogen fuel cell electric truck for mining applications.

The Indian government is also moving to support the adoption of ZETs. The government’s Principal Scientific Advisor’s office recently released its “Technical Roadmap for Deployment of Zero-Emission Trucking in India,” a report prepared by a group of industry, academic, and government experts. It details the timelines, budgets, and actions required from different stakeholders over the next five years to support the transition to ZETs. Among other things, the report discusses the plan for selecting priority trucking corridors for ZET deployment and launching pilots in these corridors with about 60–70 electric trucks.

The technical plan is impressive, but for the shift to ZETs to be effective, it is also crucial for the government to develop clear policies. Incentives such as green channel provisions at ports for ZETs could help increase vehicle kilometers travelled, and thus, increase revenue. Similarly, toll exemptions for ZETs can bring down the expenses and make the total cost of ownership more financially beneficial. Provisions to reduce insurance costs (which increase because of the high price of ZET assets) would also be useful. And a battery recycling policy could help reduce battery replacement costs toward the end of cycles (around 5–6 years) for ZETs. Finally, including ZETs in the priority lending list and providing capital subsidies under the Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Electric and Hybrid Vehicles (FAME) programme could also accelerate ZET adoption.

Research to support the transition to ZETs in India is another bright spot. For example, preliminary results from a study being conducted by the ICCT finds that while the upfront cost of ZETs may be high, lifetime savings are multiple times of what is possible with diesel power trains, especially for battery electric trucks. These savings are due to a significant reduction in energy consumption and fuel pilferage, as well as reduced maintenance costs. The value proposition of ZETs is backed by other research findings from organisations like  Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the Rocky Mountain Institute, and is corroborated by OEMs, charging providers, and fleet operators. Research, no matter how reliable, is validated and enriched by on-ground experience. Pilot projects would hone our understanding of the technical and economic realities of ZETs in India, and help determine the parameters for their best use.

Nevertheless, there are still hurdles ahead in the race towards the adoption of ZETs. The most significant may be their higher upfront costs, which can cause private sector operators to hesitate to invest in new power trains. Exploring innovative business models, such as offering ZETs on a cost-per-kilometer basis or using battery swapping (as is done with two-wheelers) to reduce upfront costs, could help overcome this. Another option is vehicle leasing, either by OEMs or third parties. In a stakeholder discussion, Volvo even suggested that they are open to vehicle leasing for ZETs if contract periods are extended to around 10 years to mitigate risk.

Another hurdle is the limited availability of charging infrastructure, which complicates the use of ZETs for long-distance applications (particularly outbound deliveries). To address this, we need to invest in charging infrastructure, initially along major freight corridors. Consistent power availability across highways and even in remote locations will also be a precursor to large-scale uptake of ZETs.

Despite potential obstacles, however, we should be optimistic about the future of ZETs in India. The presence of ZETs models in the Auto Expo 2023, net-zero commitments from OEMs, the demand starting to be generated by business conglomerates, and the government’s Technology Roadmap are all positive steps. And the ICCT and others are providing the research and analysis needed to help address challenges and accelerate ZET adoption.

ZETs will play a critical role in India achieving its goals for energy security, clean air, and net-zero emissions. They are not only a viable clean transportation solution, but they are vital to creating a sustainable future for India.


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