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the road ahead

A hydrogen-powered truck made by Hyundai displayed at the Swiss Museum of Transport in Luzern on Oct. 7, 2020.DENIS BALIBOUSE/Reuters

As the COVID-19 pandemic worsens, you might be thinking twice about running to the store – especially when the store can come to you.

You’re not alone. In a recent FedEx survey of 1,500 Canadians, 81 per cent say they plan to do their holiday shopping online this year.

Statistics Canada expects 2020 to beat 2019′s online-shopping sales of $305-billion, a figure that has more than doubled since 2013.

While getting that new sweater in two days or ordering a single toothbrush from Amazon is convenient, it could add more CO2 to the air, experts say.

In the next three years, transportation is expected to overtake the oil and gas industry as the biggest producer of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in Canada.

While that’s partially because oil-sands production is declining, it’s also because we’re buying more online.

“Transportation is very close to being the No. 1 source [of GHGs] in Canada,” says Derek May, senior project manager with Pollution Probe. “Emissions for freight are the fastest-growing source of GHG emissions in the country ... the big reason is the rise of e-commerce and consumer demands for just-in-time delivery.”

By 2030, emissions from moving freight are expected to surpass emissions from passenger vehicles, May says.

Long haul ahead for green semis

For that sweater to get to you, it likely has to travel long distances in a big rig – and then in a medium-sized truck or van from a distribution centre to your house.

There aren’t many options yet available for zero-emissions heavy-duty trucks, although companies are working on both hydrogen and battery-electric versions.

Hyundai delivered its first hydrogen-powered big rigs in Switzerland this year. Toyota has piloted hydrogen-powered semis, while Volvo, Mercedes-Benz, General Motors and others are working on their own.

Although hydrogen trucks fill up at about the same speed as diesel trucks, they still have less range. For instance, Toyota’s truck has an expected range of 482 kilometres – that’s about a third of the 1,609 km you’d expect from a diesel truck.

Hydrogen trucks also require a network of hydrogen stations, which we don’t have yet.

But several companies are also working on battery-powered trucks.

After delays, Tesla and Volvo promise battery-powered semis next year. Tesla says its batteries should fast-charge to their 640 km maximum range in 30 minutes.

Whether it’s hydrogen or batteries, we’re still in the early days of zero-emission heavy-duty trucks, May says.

“I think the uptake of heavy-duty vehicles will mirror the uptake of light-duty vehicles about ten years ago,” May says. “We expect to see a series of early adopters who pilot a few of them on local- and regional-delivery routes – then, as they begin to see the benefits of using them, that will start to broaden.”

Local EV deliveries expected to surge

The switch to zero-emissions trucks will be faster for local deliveries, which use smaller vehicles that “are more amenable to electrification,” May says.

It’s not just about getting green street cred – companies will consider switching to electric because fuel and maintenance are cheaper.

“For commercial fleet operators, it’s the cost of ownership over a period of time, not whether it’s trendy or cool,” says Brett Smith, director, technology, with the Center for Automotive Research. “The cost of buying it will be a problem for people, but at the end of the day, they’ll look at the cost of ownership over a two-to-three-year cycle.”

Automakers including Ford and Mercedes-Benz are rolling out battery-electric delivery vans in 2021.

Last month, Ford revealed the E-Transit – a battery-electric version of its Transit delivery van – that starts at under $58,000 and delivers 200 km of range.

While a gas-powered Transit starts at just under $33,000, Ford estimates that the E-Transit’s operating costs will be about 40 per cent lower.

Ford says the 200-km range should be enough for local commercial drivers. It says Transit drivers travel about 119 km a day, on average.

That lower range keeps the vehicle’s initial price down, Smith says.

“For a normal consumer, [200 km] isn’t great, but for a commercial driver, it’s as much or more than they need,” Smith says. “Batteries are still relatively expensive – so if you only go 79 miles [119 km] in a day and return to the base to charge at night, why pay for a vehicle that goes 400 miles [644 km] a day?”

In October, Amazon said it will partner with Rivian to build an all-electric delivery vehicle. It plans to have 10,000 on the road by 2022, and 100,000 by 2030.

As more electric vehicles get built, production costs will come down, Smith says. That means we’ll be seeing more electric delivery trucks on the road in the next two or three years.

“I think we’re at the point where you’ll see a ton of electric vehicles in fleets, especially in the bigger fleets that can deploy thousands of vehicles,” Smith says. “This is coming from someone who has been less than bullish on this for the last 20 years.”

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