A whirring and rolling tires – that’s all you can hear when MAN’s new articulated lorry starts to move. From the outside, the truck with the type designation eTGX hardly looks any different than its colleagues on the motorway.
But instead of diesel tanks and an engine, this truck has batteries on board. It is the first long-distance truck from the Volkswagen subsidiary in Munich. In May, the new head of the company, Alexander Vlaskamp, presented the car in Berlin. Federal Transport Minister Volker Wissing (FDP) was allowed to ride a lap. From 2024, the battery vehicles should roll off the assembly line in series.
You can make a note of the time from 2024 onwards. These will be exciting years, not only for the manufacturers of commercial vehicles, but also for all other road users. What is already in full swing in the passenger car market will then begin with heavy trucks: saying goodbye to diesel and the switch to electromobility.
While the transition for normal cars will be gradual, experts expect an abrupt change for commercial vehicles. The chances are good that in ten years’ time heavy goods traffic in Europe will no longer make any noise and will no longer stink of exhaust fumes.
The turnaround is only beginning with passenger cars. Almost every tenth new passenger car registered in the world last year was equipped with an electric motor, according to an evaluation by the management consultancy McKinsey. And in the current year, the share will increase significantly. The demand is extremely high, many manufacturers have practically already sold their annual production for 2022.
The manufacturers of trucks and buses are preparing for a similar situation – but only in a few years. The reason is not only the scarce supply of e-commercial vehicles on the market so far, but above all their high selling price. Freight forwarders do not buy trucks because of the brand image or because of special equipment details – instead they add up the total costs of the vehicle over its lifetime.
Only when this sum of acquisition and operating costs falls below the total costs of a diesel vehicle will they decide in favor of electric vehicles. But then diesel sales are likely to fall abruptly and the market will tilt in the direction of e-trucks. “Depending on the field of application, we see that the tipping point will come from around 2025. The point in time depends on the respective European country, on the rules for fossil fuels, the subsidy situation and the emissions trading system that the EU still has to decide on,” says MAN boss Vlaskamp.
The larger competitor Daimler Trucks is also preparing for the market to switch from diesel to electric in the second half of the decade. Under its European brand Mercedes-Benz, the now independent truck group will also be launching a long-distance truck with a battery in 2024.
The Mercedes E Actros Long Haul should then have a range of around 500 kilometers per battery charge and be able to be recharged with an output of one megawatt. This corresponds to almost three times the power of the currently most powerful charging stations for cars.
In the future, freight forwarders will need special charging stations and very powerful network connections at their depots. A government-sponsored project on the A2 motorway will soon be used to test how this megawatt charging works when on the road.
While Daimler Trucks is working in parallel on a long-distance truck with hydrogen tanks and fuel cells, the Volkswagen commercial vehicle division is concentrating almost entirely on battery trucks. MAN, financed by the state of Bavaria, is building hydrogen trucks for test operation for five freight forwarders. However, the cars will not go into series production.
MAN is part of the Volkswagen subsidiary Traton, which also owns the brands Scania, Volkswagen Truck
At MAN, major battles over job cuts and plant closures have meanwhile been fought. Vlaskamp, coming from Scania, now only implements the restructuring plan. After a long struggle with the workforce, MAN sold a plant in Steyr, Austria, and several thousand jobs in the company were lost.
Construction is now taking place in Kraków, Poland, in India and Turkey. “In the future, 65 percent of our employees will work in so-called best-cost countries, up until now it was 52 percent,” says Vlaskamp. “Personnel costs are reduced by 17 percent gross. This is a good basis, together with a large number of other measures that will also be initiated later, in order to achieve our strategic goal of an eight percent return on sales.” MAN, Traton and the always powerful works councils in the VW Group had fought for this restructuring for a long time.
The attitude towards the battery, on the other hand, has long been undisputed. At Traton, it is assumed that hydrogen will remain significantly more expensive than electricity for the foreseeable future – and therefore not worth it in the overall cost calculation.
In contrast, the industry is optimistic about the development of electricity storage. “A commercial vehicle has different requirements than a car. We’re talking about a mileage of around 1.5 million kilometers that we can cover with a conventional truck.
We will also achieve really long service lives with batteries,” says Vlaskamp. If megawatt charging works, the vehicles should be fully recharged within 45 minutes – i.e. during the driver’s break, which is required by law.
Freight forwarders also believe in this electric future. In the USA, the Daimler Trucks subsidiary Freightliner has just received a pre-order for 800 electric trucks from a large food transport company. The cars are to be delivered by 2026.
Manufacturers have had smaller trucks with electric motors for transport in the city for years. Sales figures are growing in Europe, albeit from a low level. Transport Minister Wissing hopes that there will be significantly more in the future.
Because the transport sector has been doing worse than all other areas in terms of CO₂ reduction for years, it is under corresponding pressure. “We can only achieve the climate protection goals if the entire transport sector contributes, including freight transport,” he said at the MAN event in Berlin.
By the end of the decade, a third of freight traffic should therefore be handled electrically. The federal government pays freight forwarders 80 percent of the additional costs incurred when buying an electric truck compared to diesel. 2000 vehicles for short and medium distances were subsidized last year.
The minister wants these expenditures to be understood as start-up financing, he said that it should be done as quickly as possible without subsidies. In a not too distant future with quietly whirring trucks, he could also imagine relaxing the regulations for the industry. Wissing argued that if supermarkets in the city could be supplied at night, this would make better use of the infrastructure and relieve them during the day.
At MAN they are prepared for this future, says Vlaskamp – and explains this using the example of the main plant: “In Munich we can produce conventional and electric trucks very flexibly on the same line. Depending on requirements, the current capacities will be sufficient for the ramp-up by 2030,” he says. When no more diesels are ordered, only battery trucks will roll off the assembly line.
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