Electrifying trucks and buses is an opportunity for lasting change, one we can’t afford to miss

By Jason Mathers

The U.S. is still struggling to contain the spread of COVID-19 and quantify the human and economic consequences of this historic tragedy. But already, leaders are contemplating how we’ll restore our economies. Will we rebuild a replica of what we had, or will we invest in ideas that will make society more resilient, healthier, cleaner and more equitable?
The transportation sector is on the cusp of massive change, and one segment within it is ripe for reinvention: medium- and heavy-duty vehicles. These include everything from semi-trucks and delivery vans, to city buses and garbage trucks — the overwhelming majority of which are powered by diesel engines.
Electrifying this segment was an opportunity for lasting change before the COVID-19 economic crash. Now that countries are considering where to invest to rebuild their economies, it’s an opportunity we can’t afford to miss.

Zero-emission vehicles currently comprise a negligible share of the truck market, but they possess the potential to be the workhorses of a clean energy future. They can also help reduce the toxic pollution people breathe in from diesel-emitting tailpipes. Approximately 30 to 45% of the urban population in North America lives “next to a busy road” — and children who live or go to school near major roadways are at considerable additional risk for substantial deficits in lung function, even in areas with low regional pollution.
Globally, climate emissions from large vehicles are on pace to double in the next 30 years, when we must be driving down net emissions to zero. To reverse this trend and transform large vehicles into a critical part of a 100% clean economy, the global fleet must complete a near-total transition to zero-emission trucks and buses. The U.S., China and Europe — as the largest truck markets — must lead the way to this transition by 2050.
“A Herculean task”
In its 2019 EV Outlook , Bloomberg New Energy Finance found that, by 2040, just 31% of new medium-duty trucks and just below 20% of new heavy-duty trucks will be electric in the U.S., China and Europe. At this pace of adoption, fossil-fuel-powered trucks would still account for more than half of trucks on the road in the U.S., Europe and China in 2050.
Clearly, we must put our foot on the accelerator if we are to ensure a near-total transition to electric trucks and buses by 2050.
This task is made more challenging by the decade or more lifetime of a new truck — meaning that converting the fleet by 2050 will require that nearly all new vehicles entering the fleet are zero-emission by 2040. Additionally, it takes time for a new technology to gain market share, as production scale must be built and fleet decision makers must gain confidence in the ability of the technology to perform. For example, diesel trucks first started to gain significant market share in the mid 1950’s, but did not achieve...