Freight industry wants to use electric trucks and vans, but says government inaction is holding it back

Australia is already well behind in the global race to electrify cars, but truckers say they also need help to step up a gear.

Just 2% of new car sales in Australia last year were electric, compared to 9% globally.

Yet the domestic market for commercial vehicles, such as vans and trucks, is effectively non-existent.

The federal government is working to accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles (EVs), but the trucking industry says Australia needs to adopt policies that have worked overseas, like less regulation and more support for charging infrastructure.

Mark Hemmingsen, a Canberra businessman who works in the electric vehicle industry, says the lack of options is frustrating.

Mr Hemmingsen, who installs charging stations for electric vehicles, until recently had to drive to customers in an old petrol-powered station wagon.

He finally received an electric van a few months ago.

“Some of the cars I used to show up in were embarrassing…so it’s great to have something quite important,” he says.

“It allows us to stand out and we can show people that we put our money where our mouth is.”

The van can only travel around 100 kilometers before needing to be recharged, although Mr Hemmingsen says its benefits far outweigh any current disadvantages – and those benefits go beyond fuel savings.

“Once you’ve driven electrically, you won’t want to go back,” he says.

“I know the puritans will say ‘it’s not the same as a big V8 or something’ and, look, it’s not.

“We have a saying: ABC – Always Be Charging. [But] the smoothness of the ride is incredible, and the acceleration.”

Local freight companies have limited options

According to the Australian Trucking Association (ATA) and the Electric Vehicle Council, more than 58 models of zero-emission trucks and vans are available in North America, Europe and China.

Yet there are only 14 in Australia – a situation which forced Mr Hemmingsen to import his electric van.

Industry groups say electric trucks and vans will play a crucial role in reducing Australia’s carbon emissions.

Road transport was responsible for around 19% of the country’s emissions in 2019, and a report by ClimateWorks Australia found that 38% of those were related to road freight.

Samuel Marks says regulations are preventing freight companies from adopting electric trucks.(ABC News: Nick Haggarty)

ATA adviser Samuel Marks says trucking emissions are on the rise because demand for freight is increasing.

However, several barriers prevent the trucking industry from adopting zero-emission vehicles, he says.

“This includes regulations – such as vehicle design rules – that are incompatible with foreign markets, slowing the introduction of new technologies.”

Mr. Marks says electric vehicles significantly reduce operating costs for trucking companies, but their prices are high.

Several cars plugged into an electric vehicle parking station
Charging stations are often not designed for trucks or mid-size vehicles.

And while governments across Australia are increasing the number of electric vehicle charging stations, Mr Marks says commercial vehicles are being left behind.

“The trucking industry is a pretty price-sensitive industry, with tight margins,” he says.

“Even the limited public charging infrastructure we have today is often not designed for trucks and their accessibility.

“If you can’t reload your truck, you can’t move your freight.”

To increase adoption of commercial electric vehicles, industry groups recommend changing width and weight limits, exempting zero-emissions trucks from curfews, paying incentives for depot charging and investing more in the charging infrastructure.

They also recommend electric vehicle subsidies and stamp duty exemptions, as well as mandatory sales targets.

Australia-based manufacturers agree with international approach

Australian electric garbage truck by SEA Electric.
SEA-Electric assembles and exports electric trucks from its factory in Melbourne.(Supplied: electric SEA)

Some Australian manufacturers say other countries have better approaches.

SEA-Electric assembles electric trucks based on Hino vehicles at a factory in the Melbourne suburb of Dandenong. It now exports vehicles to customers abroad.

Tony Fairweather, the company’s founder and chief executive, says midsize utility vehicles are ideal for electrification.

“Utility vehicles basically have fixed routes on a daily basis – they know exactly how far they’re going to go,” he says.

“We design the power system to be able to perform this task, whether it is 150 kilometers or 250 kilometers per day.

“Urban apps – start-stop then back to base, where they charge in the exact same place they charge overnight – so there’s no need to charge throughout the day.”

Tony Fairweather and Danielle Wallace looking at an electric motor under the hood of a car.
Tony Fairweather says mid-size utility vehicles are perfect for electrification.(ABC News: Michael Barnett)

Beyond urban areas, Fairweather says hydrogen vehicles will be more suitable for intercity travel due to range and speed requirements.

“This is where it’s really important…that the different types of electrical deployments are considered,” he says.

“Outside of urban environments… support for hydrogen or additional fast charging is absolutely necessary.”

Mr Fairweather says several US jurisdictions offer examples that Australia could follow, such as defining zero-emission zones only for certain traffic or parking for delivery vehicles only.

California’s “advanced clean truck” rule, introduced last year, also requires an increasing percentage of medium and heavy-duty truck sales to be zero-emission vehicles.

“Australia has been disappointingly slow to acknowledge and recognize electrification,” Mr Fairweather said.

“However, I think they have the new [federal] government and the opportunities in this space to make up for lost time.

“I think there’s actually an advantage to being slow to market – to learning what has worked in other countries and what hasn’t.”

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