Mapping road freight’s decarbonisation timeline


Road-freight operators must be encouraged to reduce their existing emissions, while also thinking ahead to new solutions, such as alternative powertrains. Sarah Llewelyn, head of fleet solutions UK at Shell, maps out the immediate, medium and long-term actions for decarbonisation

Since the UK became the first major, global economy to legally commit to a net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions target in June 2019, the 2050 deadline has been looming larger in the rear-view mirror of many commercial road freight businesses. In fact, decarbonisation is cited as a leading or top three priority for 70 per cent of road freight industry executives and experts.  
With the help of our partners Frost & Sullivan, we have released a new whitepaper: Navigating Roadblocks in the Long-Haul Road Freight Industry, outlining how businesses can successfully move towards the adoption of lower emissions solutions, advance digitalisation to generate operational efficiencies, and as a result secure a low-carbon future for the industry.

Change is on the horizon

While the legislation may be relatively new, the concept of decarbonisation is not. The last eighteen months have certainly seen commercial road freight fleets experiencing a period of intense change, exacerbated by the pandemic. And this evolution is not purely dictated by the raised awareness of our collective environmental impact, but by evolving customer and societal habits too – like booms in online purchasing and next day delivery – that have been accelerated as a result of COVID-19.
As this period has proven, our fleet mobility system does – and must – reflect the needs and behaviours of our society. This may relate to expectations around convenience and service, but it also holds true for broader topics like sustainability as well. And when an industry accounts for about 30 per cent of the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions, action must be taken. Whether it is through short, medium or long-term measures – or ideally, a combination of all three – it is this action that will help road-freight operators to become a leading example for other industries to follow as opposed to simply trying to keep pace with society’s needs.

Solutions for immediate carbon reduction

But, where to start? As COVID-19 has shown, there is no time to waste when identifying solutions and putting them to good effect. And action on climate change will be no different. Road-freight operators must be encouraged to deal first with the here and now, by reducing the emissions of existing operations while awaiting the adoption of new solutions like alternative powertrains.
First on this list is the fuel in the tank. Poor quality diesel can have disastrous effects on efficiency – halving a vehicle’s injector life and causing deposits that can reduce vehicle efficiency by two per cent, and the load pulling power of the engine by 2.5 per cent. All of which can equate to a larger environmental impact for the fleet in question. On the other hand, by using differentiated fuels like Shell FuelSave Diesel with DYNAFLEX Technology, fleets can realise fuel economy savings of up to 8.9 per cent, while raising engine load pulling by 5.2 per cent in the process.
The other factor in play here is commercially available technologies that operators can integrate into their fleet immediately. Shell’s Starship Initiative was developed to put this to the test: a hyper-fuel efficient truck that features an aerodynamic design and various available technologies, highlighting the potential of these technologies – which were able to offer fuel consumption benefits of between 40 per cent and 60 per cent of US national road freight averages. Proving that, whether it’s through investment in newer truck models or the retrofitting of old ones, changes made to your fleet today can make a huge difference on your footprint and bottom-line tomorrow.

Identifying efficiencies with data-driven technologies

However, in the medium-term, it will be data-driven technologies that are likely to have the biggest impact in terms of reducing fleet emissions. This is because they provide freight operators with: greater visibility into the output of their entire operations; the ability to identify potential efficiencies; and the tools needed to implement meaningful improvements. What’s more, the sooner fleets can bed these digital solutions into their operations, the greater the compound interest of these changes will be.
With operational efficiencies at its core, digital fleet management solutions like telematics can lower fuel expenses by 5–20 per cent. Shell Telematics offers freight operators instant, real-time data that can help connect and integrate the various parts of their fleet. Operations become more streamlined as a result, with route optimisation enabling up to a 20 per cent reduction in driving hours and driver performance monitoring potentially helping to reduce safety incidents by a fifth. And when implemented correctly, fleets could expect to see up to a 20 per cent improvement in fuel economy and up to a 15 per cent reduction in exhaust CO2 emissions.  
Continuing the theme of data-led insights, fleets can also leverage the capabilities of digital freight brokerage. A digital freight forwarding company like InstaFreight can help freight companies to move away from the often-inefficient analogue process of load brokerage that has previously seen the average truck operate for a quarter of the kilometres they drive, with an empty load. By using real-time data to bridge the gap between hauliers, fleet managers and drivers, these platforms can help to reduce empty runs, potentially improving fleet efficiency by over 60 per cent.

Are new powertrains the long-term answer to decarbonisation?

And then, a little further around the bend but perhaps most importantly of all, are alternative powertrains and the fuels that power them. To help to avoid emissions production wherever possible, the industry will need to make significant shift towards more renewable fuels. The continued emergence and long-term success of these fuels will therefore come to define the industry’s decarbonisation efforts.

The current fuels landscape can be difficult to navigate however, largely because timelines for each are varied or unclear. For example, biofuels like liquified natural gas (LNG), BioLNG and compressed natural gas (CNG) are starting to gain more traction since they can emit up to 25 per cent less GHG than diesel fuel. In fact, growth in the use of LNG by our customers doubled in 2020, and up to December 2020, saving 35,673 tons of CO2 – the equivalent to driving 33.2 million kilometres in an HDV.
Meanwhile, as powertrain technologies continue to mature, battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and hydrogen powered fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) are set to become more of a realistic option for road freight fleets, however, to ensure this, the industry needs to overcome the challenges of uneven costs and infrastructure, first. In a key first step to overcoming these challenges, Shell and NewMotion have made significant progress in increasing access for passenger and light-duty fleets – offering access to a public network of more than 200,000  charge points across more than 35 countries, and over 100 Shell Recharge EV charging points on Shell forecourts across the UK.  We have also opened three UK hydrogen refuelling stations, at Shell Beaconsfield, Shell Cobham and Shell Gatwick North.

Net-zero: a collective destination

As this all suggests, there is no single, quick fix for decarbonisation in the commercial road freight space. But that doesn’t need to be a bad thing. In fact, it arguably raises more opportunities than it does obstacles. In the short-term, freight operators are increasingly empowered by the choices they have when it comes to commercially available technologies and consumables, while digitalisation continues to expand the toolkit available to today’s fleets. And then, as we look further into the distance and towards a collective net-zero destination, alternative fuels and powertrains offer the industry a promising, long-term hope. Ultimately, the most important thing is that fleets start taking action now; 2050 may seem like a long way off, but we all know that once you’re on the road, the miles always start ticking by quicker than expected.