At the Brisbane Truck Show, the biggest in the southern hemisphere and so big it is only held once every two years, the future and beauty of road transport is very much in the eye of the vendor.
And it doesn’t seem to matter whether they are selling the latest diesel big rig, a hybrid truck, or one powered by batteries or hydrogen fuel cells – the future, they will tell you, is still theirs.
The grim reality, however, is that to most of the trucking world, Australia is one of the last frontiers where you can pretty much do what you want.
Australia’s passenger vehicle market is known to be one of the last dumping grounds for dirty cars, thanks to the lack of vehicle fuel standards which makes those cars dangerous for the climate, dangerous to people’s health, and expensive to run.
That issue is now being addressed, although it is still not clear at what speed and what intent. We might find out at the end of the year.
Not so much in the truck industry, where the situation appears to be even worse: The sector didn’t even rate a mention in the new National Electric Vehicle strategy, and it’s one of the very last markets in the world where you can turn up with up with diesel rigs such as the Kenworth 220 (which won the truck of the year award) or the Iveco S-Way and confidently declare these machines really are the future of trucking.
Maybe this is one of the problems with a “net zero by 2050” target. Too many people appear to think that means not having to do much any time soon – yet we know from the latest climate science that an awful lot needs to be done in a very short period of time.
But that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen in Australia. On Thursday we reported on some of the green shoots in the market, new electric van releases by Hyundai and Ford, the first heavy duty electric trucks from Volvo and Mercedes, and new offerings from Fuso, Foton, Isuzu, H-Drive, Hyzon and others.
These are exciting developments. And to those who have driven these vehicles here or overseas the benefits are obvious – in terms of efficiency, running costs, pollution, and driver comfort and safety. But in so many ways the Brisbane truck show highlighted just how far Australia trails the rest of the world, and Europe in particular.
Heavy road transport accounts for around 7 per cent of the world’s emissions. In Australia, the Grattan Institute estimates that 400 people die a year from air pollution, with the worst offender being the age of Australian trucks – many on the road are up to 40 years old, and heavily polluting. There are solutions, but they need government support.
At the world’s biggest truck show in Hannover last year, it was almost impossible to find a diesel truck, and every single trucking company was touting its zero emission offerings, mostly electric and a little bit of hydrogen fuel cells.
At Brisbane, the electrics were visible, but barely so. There were some 14 different companies offering some form of electric or hydrogen fuel cell trucks, and some bold Aussie start-ups such as the conversion special SEA Electric and the battery swapping Janus Electric. But it was mixed messages from the big players.
At Hanover, the German company Man Group was one of the big talkers of the transition to electric, and unveiled a heavy duty electric truck offering with a claimed range of 800kms, just the ticket for the Australian market, one might have thought. At Brisbane, though, there wasn’t even a mention of electric, and nothing on its stand.
Full credit, then, to Volvo Trucks, the Swedish group which not just talks the talk but walks the walk. Yes, Volvo did have a diesel truck on its stand at Brisbane, unlike Hanover, but it is clear it is also very serious about the electric transition.
Volvo has sold more than 5,000 electric trucks world-wide, and more than 50 of their medium sized electric trucks into the Australian market. It has now brought the first heavy duty electric trucks to Australia, but can’t make deliveries until the country’s unique and archaic rules governing weight around the front axles are modified.
“We as an industry need to shift to fossil free transport. And we need to do it now and fast,” Volvo Trucks global CEO Roger Alm told media at a presentation in Brisbane before the conference opened.
He pointed to a slide in his presentation that showed a photo of a young child in a field.
“She doesn’t really care about range, about charging infrastructure, about technology,” Alm said. “She wants to have something different. We need give future generations a world that they will like to live in, and we should make that happen. They should feel proud of us that we made it happen.”
In Europe, trucking companies are under pressure because local communities and governments are serious about climate change, and they are getting sick of the noise and the pollution. Diesel trucks won’t be welcome within the city limits, or they will face pollution controls so strict that can’t meet them.
That means a transition to electric vehicles, or hydrogen fuel cells where it fits into the industry. According to the International Energy Agency, global tailpipe emissions from heavy trucks have nearly doubled in the last 20 years, and will continue increasing to record levels in the coming years. But they need to fall, and fall quickly.
So far, China accounts for 90 per cent of global zero emission bus sales, and 80 per cent of electric truck sales. Some 15 countries have vowed to reach 100 per cent zero emission truck sales by 2040, and 30 per cent by 2030. That includes New Zealand, but Australia is not one of them.
It was no surprise, then, to hear the local head of sales at Foton Mobility, talk about the China’s brands intentions in Australia. It has just launched the T5 electric van in Australia, and is also bringing a hydrogen bus and a hydrogen prime mover to Australia.
H-Drive, too, distributes Chinese-made hydrogen trucks and buses and has just released its first hydrogen prime move in Australia. It is not clear how effective that will be in this market, but the intention is there.
Grattan Institute modelling shows the community benefits of zero-emissions sales targets for heavy duty trucks could be worth more than $4 billion in monetary terms between 2024 and 2040.
These benefits include not just the carbon emissions avoided, but also a significant reduction in respiratory and other diseases, due to the elimination of exhaust-pipe pollutants. There would also be a welcome reduction in noise pollution.
But to many trucking companies Australia looks like one of the last big markets where they can sell their big diesel rigs with impunity, comfortable in the knowledge that long distances and a government that didn’t even mention heavy trucks in their EV strategy is not going to touch the industry anytime soon.