The Need to Drive to Zero

Air Quality and GHGs

ZECV technologies are arriving at a critical time as governments around the world have recognized the urgent need to reduce transportation emissions, both to improve air quality and to meet GHG emission reduction targets. Tailpipe air pollutants have been demonstrated to harm human health, drastically increasing rates of lung and heart disease while elevating cancer risks,[1] and the most vulnerable populations are typically the most exposed to these dangerous pollutants.[2] GHGs from the transportation sector have grown globally as wealth increases in developing nations and the costs of vehicle ownership decrease; the result has been improved mobility and economic access around the world, but at a cost of rising GHG emissions. Global efforts to avoid the worst effects of climate change require GHG reductions, but estimates from the International Energy Agency (IEA) indicate that on-road vehicles in every category will increase number of miles traveled by 2050.[3]

New, near- and zero-emission technologies are needed that will sustain global economic growth while protecting its inhabitants from dangerous pollutants and the impacts of climate change. The rate of GHG emissions is highly variable, with emissions outputs depending upon vehicle type and duty cycle, charging or fueling type, and the GHG content of the fuels or electricity. However, in every case, switching to a ZECV reduces GHG emissions relative to a diesel-powered vehicle while also directly benefitting urban air quality.

Zero-emission vehicle progress has typically focused on light-duty vehicles, but the global impact of commercial vehicles is significant and growing. Commercial medium- and heavy-duty trucks and buses account for more than 30 percent of global on-road energy use, a figure that the IEA projects to rise to 40 percent by 2050. Engine improvements have reduced the impacts of tailpipe pollutants on local health, but studies continue to discover new and dangerous health effects that are produced by burning petroleum, particularly in dense urban environments. On-road diesel vehicle emissions (ozone and particulate matter, specifically) were linked with over half of a premature 385,000 deaths globally in 2015, with dense urban environments experiencing 2 to 3 times as many premature deaths as the global average.[4] With the impacts of climate change looming and local populations suffering the impacts of tailpipe pollution, there is a clear need to transition as quickly as possible to ZECVs.

Barriers to ZECV Adoption

The barriers to widespread ZECV adoption have been persistent, though progress has been made in key markets that shows that ZECVs are a viable and effective technological solution. The business-as-usual method of powering trucks and buses with petroleum over the past decade has been more attractive than switching to ZECVs because the supply chains for petroleum-powered vehicle parts, fuels, and fueling infrastructure is already available and operating at a large scale in nearly all markets. The following barriers must be resolved to rapidly increase fleet uptake of ZECVs:

  • Higher upfront costs: The costs of battery production, though falling quickly and consistently, still constitute the largest expense for a new ZECV. For some projects, all-electric drivetrains can triple the costs for fleets to purchase vehicles. Creating new vehicle components and meeting the initial demand in a new market also adds to upfront costs. Though reduced fueling and maintenance costs help improve the total cost of ownership (TCO) of ZECVs, their purchase costs remain significantly higher than petroleum-powered vehicles, particularly for smaller fleets without a large capital expenditure budget that can recoup higher purchase costs through lower operating costs.
  • Limited fueling infrastructure: The current low volumes of ZECVs diminishes the business case for private investor financing of electric, hydrogen, or alternative fuel infrastructure. The costs of trenching, upgrading electric panels, and installing high-power stations can easily exceed $15,000 for a Level 2 (L2) station or $100,000 for a DC fast charging station. Hydrogen stations can exceed $500,000. Without high levels of demand for these services, investments in fueling infrastructure will either be slow to pay off or may not provide any return on investment.[1]
  • Fleet uncertainty: A new ZECV is a significant investment, both in terms of cost and performance. Fleet operators may be hesitant to purchase a new technology that they have not seen widely tested and adopted already. At the beginning of the current ZECV market earlier this decade, vehicle performance was often viewed as unreliable as new entrants in the market tried out the new technology. While ZECV performance has improved greatly and now meets most duty cycles, for most applications outside of transit and school buses there has not been a long track record of success. Additionally, a fleet that adopts ZECVs may need to purchase new dedicated charging or fueling infrastructure and switch its operating paradigms, such as how the vehicles are fueled and domiciled.