The Hanover truck and bus show feels deceptive. Everywhere one walks, electric and hybrid trucks and buses roam, giving the impression that new technology is on the ascendant.
But on the roads in the real world it is a different story, where diesel technology dominates. Of heavy-duty trucks sold in Europe so far this year, 97per cent are diesel; for camper vans, it is 100 per cent, according to data from Jato Dynamics.
The discrepancy between what is on display at Hanover's IAA commercial vehicle show, which ends today, versus what is on the road is largely down to costs.
Buyers of trucks and buses are unwilling to pay more for electric vehicles that do little to boost profits.
This creates a problem for manufacturers, who want to sell more electric vehicles because otherwise they will have difficulty meeting strict emissions targets.
“The customer is not prepared [to pay more], that's the biggest problem,” said Martin Daum, chief executive of Daimler Trucks and Buses.
“They have to make money with their trucks. If you have a truck that costs €100,000 and another that costs €150,000 but does the same job, which are you going to buy?”
Big cities such as London and Paris aim to implement bans on diesel vehicles. Meanwhile the European Commission has proposed manufacturers cut new truck fuel consumption by 30 per cent between 2019 and 2030.
However, industry executives insist they are trying to adapt and build more alternative fuel vehicles as they try to meet diesel targets.
“Battery prices are coming down, the prices for carbon-burning engines are going up because we have to fulfil more regulations,” Mr Daum said.
“I can see that in a couple of years, if we have the business case, the whole thing switches to electric.”
The message in this northern German city, which holds the truck and bus show every two years, is that manufacturers are ready to adapt.
Scania's plug-in hybrid technology, MAN's battery-powered city bus, Hyundai's fuel cell city truck and Daimler's electric heavy-duty freight carrier were all highlights. Even liquefied natural gas powertrains have taken centre stage.
But green energy groups accuse the industry of flamboyantly showing off products that earn social responsibility plaudits — but then of doing little to get these products sold.
“It's a smokescreen,” said Stef Cornelis at Transport & Environment, a Brussels-based clean energy group.
“There's a big difference between what they put in the showroom, how they behave at the IAA in front of the cameras, and how they act when they lobby in Berlin or Brussels,” he added.
“When you look at their position paper, it shows they want to sell as few electric trucks as possible.”
Andreas Renschler, head of Traton, the new brand name for Volkswagen's trucks and buses group, responds that it is folly to expect the heaviest vehicles on the road to shift into electric as quickly as cars might.
Individuals can splash out on a fancy electric car, but in this industry customers typically make decisions on the total cost of ownership, or TCO — the lifetime costs of buying and then operating a vehicle.
“Everything is TCO-oriented in our business, so you have to offer them solutions they are willing to buy,” said Mr Renschler.
“This will change over time but so far, nothing is more efficient than a diesel engine.”
'The customer is not prepared [to pay more], that's the biggest problem'
When mass-market electric vehicles were introduced in 2010 their battery packs cost about $1,000 per kilowatt hour. A Tesla Model 3 pack today costs $190perkWh, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Once the costs fall below $150 — expected after 2025 — then EVs could cost the same or less than combustion engine vehicles. Until then, combustion engine vehicles are likely to remain predominant.
The number of businesses and cities willing to pay more for eco-friendly products is growing. However, many often do not realise they need special infrastructure if 150 or 200 electric buses are to be charged at some central location overnight. “It's not an issue for us to sell certain electric buses in small volume for cities,” said Mr Renschler.
“But if they [the cities] really want to move into a new century, they need to prepare themselves.”
|Alternative-fueled trucks are still a niche in Europe|
|Sales by powertrain, Jan to Aug (%)|
BY PATRICK MCGEE — HANOVER