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DHL pilots heavy-duty electric trucks on road to zero emissions

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett October 12, 2023
DHL’s move to electric trucks isn’t without its challenges, however, as charging infrastructure still needs to be scaled.

An image of a DHL Truck
(Image sourced via DHL)

Logistics company DHL is already well on its way to switching from diesel to electric for its light-duty vehicles, a move that forms a key element of its sustainability aims. Of the 119,000 road vehicles the firm currently operates, 29,000 are now electric.

But as we noted in our previous article on DHL’s ambitious sustainability targets, there is a big difference between switching to electric for light-duty vans compared to heavy-duty vehicles. This is especially true as most of the ecosystem to support the move from gas or diesel to electric has been developed for light-duty electric vehicles (EVs). 

At a roundtable event, hosted by Samsara, Stephan Schablinski, VP of Operations Excellence - Go Green at DHL Supply Chain, explained that without this ecosystem, heavy-duty EVs won’t be road-worthy:

The vehicle would not be able to work without the charging, service and training infrastructure, which have been perfectly developed for the diesel or gasoline market over decades. Now we are here trying to make a new technology work and all these supporting components like the charging, service, maintenance, they all need to be established. That takes time.

Since it launched its first light-duty EVs back in 2015, DHL has gained an understanding of what else is required apart from the vehicles themselves, so they can operate as part of the fleet. The firm is now aiming to take learnings from its successful light-duty segment, which has become almost a standard process, into the heavy-duty space to get those vehicles onto the road. 

Switching to electric for heavy-duty, long-haul loads would go some way to cutting the CO2 emissions associated with the transport sector, which currently accounts for over a third of overall UK emissions. 

DHL is already using heavy-duty EVs, but only in a specific and limited way. Back in 2015, it began using electric yard trucks. While these are Class 8 heavy-duty vehicles, they don't travel a long range over the course of the day, and they remain very close to the facility so a charger is always close by. This allowed the company to test how a Class 8 EV works with the charger always in reach. 

Electric yard trucks are now standard for DHL, and the firm isn’t buying any diesel yard trucks anymore. Over the past seven or eight years, it has learned how to deploy electric yard trucks, how they work and how to commercialize them. The next step came about two years ago, when DHL deployed its first Class 8 EVs on the road in North America. Schablinski notes:

We learned how to swim in a pool by using yard trucks. Now we have the confidence we can swim, and now we go to the ocean and try to apply the same learning to the on-the-road Class 8 trucks.

However, Class 8 EVs are a very different prospect compared to light-duty models: the chargers are much bigger, the vehicles have a totally different payload, they are much more sensitive to climatic changes, and the impact on the range is much bigger if running them in hot or cold climates. Schablinski notes:

We are still on a learning curve, but we are in the process of deploying a number of Class 8 electric trucks in North America across different climate zones, because we want to learn how to make Class 8 electric trucks work for us in the US, not only where the sun is shining and where there's a mild temperature, but also in colder climates.

DHL’s investment and testing in this area could have an impact on the wider rollout of EVs for heavy-duty road transport, according to McKinsey & Company Senior Partner Mike Thompson. At the Samsara event, he explained that many companies are looking to leaders like DHL to see if they can figure out heavy-duty EVs and their operations, and then do their own rapid rollout. Thompson added:

There's so many questions about charging and they just don't have that scale to be able to test in that way. Most people are still pretty far behind that in the US but almost all are experimenting.

However, this isn’t an area where DHL can solve the problem on its own. In almost all cases, the firm currently needs to use its own charging infrastructure due to the lack of public charging infrastructure that would meet its purpose. This is something DHL would like to see change and be done more in partnership with other stakeholders. Schablinski explains:

In many cases we are where our customer is. If the customer decides to change their supply chain geographically, we move with the customer. That means if we invest in a charging infrastructure somewhere, we are not certain that we are going to be there for the next five or 10 years. This poses a tremendous risk because we don't know if we are using this investment or this infrastructure for the time that it takes to depreciate.

To avoid DHL taking on all this risk requires working together with property owners, customers and facility managers. Schablinski says:

In the US, we are using a turnkey EV charging provider. We're working with companies that do the full turnkey job for us, walking the site, assessing the situation, do we have enough power, what do we need to do to charge 10 Class 8 trucks. Then doing the whole job, all the way to handing over the key to the charging station.

The charging infrastructure is probably one of the biggest challenges that we all face, because of the investment, because of the uncertainty. But it doesn't stop us from going electric because we only learn by doing it.

It’s likely that DHL won’t be alone in increasingly switching away from diesel to electric. According to Samsara CEO Sanjit Biswas, over the next five years almost every major fleet will go through this experimentation process, figuring out what's practical for them based on workload and vehicle type. Biswas added:

I would be very surprised in 2028, if most fleets have not deployed some fraction of EVs, where it makes sense for them and done it in a data-driven, practical way.

We work with around 20,000 customers across these industries, and we are seeing everyone take the plunge, start getting involved and do these pilots.

Practical, simple questions

But as DHL has discovered, the charging infrastructure needs to be in place first, as it doesn't make sense to procure expensive vehicles and assets until firms are ready to charge and run them. Biswas explains:

That tends to be a front running process, maybe a few years ahead of time putting in those initial chargers. Then it's getting used to the change management because you're going to run a mixed fleet, you're going to have traditional combustion engines and battery electric vehicles. And your drivers, the frontline workers have to understand what do you do at the end of the shift, how do you plug it in? 

Many of us have gone through this on the personal side when you try out an electric vehicle - is it safe to plug this in in the rain? Very practical simple questions like that, that you want to answer because otherwise your fleet won't be ready to go the next day.

Despite the challenges that still need to be overcome, the future is firmly electric for DHL, and a core component of its zero emissions target by 2050. But it’s not yet clear whether this will be achieved with EVs with a large battery; or with a small battery plus a fuel cell that turns hydrogen into electricity. The latter would enable fuel generation on the truck rather than via the battery, which would help cover longer ranges. Schablinski says:

We all want this new vehicle that comes with zero emissions to behave the same as the current diesel vehicle. That's our dream, so that we go back to where we were coming from, to a single fuel model that comes at zero emissions.

Schablinski is placing his hopes in fuel cell EVs. According to the manufacturers, these vehicles can cover 500 or 600 miles, and don’t come with the payload constraints that some of the better EVs have due to their heavy batteries. 

If the future is fuel cell electric, it could well feature a zero-emissions truck that behaves very similar to current diesel trucks. Schablinski adds:

Once we reach this situation, we’ve solved the problem of going to zero emissions, as long as we are able to produce green hydrogen or a hydrogen that comes at a very low, ideally zero emissions.

But to reach this point requires companies like DHL getting involved, testing out different technologies and investing money. Schablinski notes:

We need to act now because all this testing, all this piloting with early generation better electric trucks or whatever the fuel is, helps the manufacturers come up with the eventual solution, like the zero-emission truck that behaves like a diesel truck. 

It doesn't work without us industry or fleet operators investing, testing, using and helping the OEMs to come up with that final solution that will help us go zero emission.

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