Heavy Load

German truck makers hitch onto electromobility

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Almost Autobahn ready. Source: Handelsblatt/Thomas Einberger

It’s a well-worn cliché that Germans love their cars, but they seem to have far less room in their hearts for trucks. Commercial vehicles are more commonly a cause for complaint: They’re loud, pollute the air, and snarl traffic on the Autobahn.

But the reality is that trucks and vans transport three-quarters of all goods in the European Union. As e-commerce industry titans like Amazon grow, demand for cargo transport is increasing at an unsustainable rate. Commercial vehicle manufacturers face even more pressure to develop new technologies than their car-making counterparts. That includes, of course, self-driving trucks.

Safety systems used in commercial vehicles already feature emergency-braking and adaptive cruise control, and connectivity is standard. On the highway, truck makers are next pinning their hopes on “platooning,” a technology that links two or more trucks electronically, allowing them to drive more closely together and save fuel. The idea is that the lead vehicle controls the speed and direction.

One day, self-driving technology will have the potential to drive down freight transport costs even more, as well as reduce accidents caused by tired drivers. “Fleet operators today already know exactly where their vehicles are at this moment,” said Joachim Drees, CEO of the Munich-based MAN Truck & Bus, owned by the Volkswagen Group.

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Platooning could be the answer not just to clearing space on Germany’s crowded motorways, but also squaring climate targets. Cargo transport is set to increase by as much as 30 percent by 2030 – at the same time, lawmakers want to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 40 percent.

MAN Truck & Bus and Daimler are both testing the concept. But while platooning is already technically feasible, the German government isn’t ready for it. Investment would have to be prioritized in infrastructure, specifically in 5G mobile networks. “Highways have to become information highways, too,” said the CEO of Volkswagen Truck & Bus, Andreas Renschler, at a recent Handelsblatt event. “We’re talking about 5G, and we don’t even have a stable 3G network yet.”

If policymakers aren’t willing to make platooning a reality, they’ll need to accommodate truckmakers in other ways. “Easier than platooning would be permitting triple-trailer trucks,” said Andreas Schmitz, the board chairman of trailer company Schmitz Cargobull. Compared to double trailers, he added, the longer trucks would cut fuel consumption by 20 percent on long-haul trips.

For short city distances, however, smaller electric vans and buses are more viable. Here, Deutsche Post poses a big challenge to industry heavyweights such as VW and Daimler. In 2014, the German logistics giant bought electric van manufacturer StreetScooter, with an eye to serial production and sales to third parties. Deutsche Post plans to eventually replace all 70,000 vehicles in its own fleet with StreetScooters.

MAN Truck & Bus is set to start serial production of electric buses by the end of 2019. “In the run-up to that, we’ll conduct pilot experiments with partner cities, such as Paris, Hamburg and Munich,” Mr. Drees said. He noted that many cities want to complete the transition to emissions-free buses by sometime between 2020 and 2025. That still leaves the troublesome problem of long-distance highways to meet the real demand – at least if consumers are going to keep ordering more packages online.

Martin-Werner Buchenau reports from Stuttgart as Handelsblatt’s Baden-Württemberg correspondent. Markus Fasse specializes in aviation and automobile industry news and works from Handelsblatt’s Munich office. Hans-Jürgen Jakobs also contributed to this report. Amanda Price in New York City adapted this article for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the authors: buchenau@handelsblatt.com and fasse@handelsblatt.com.

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