Collaboration for a greener future: Professor Philip Greening on Heriot Watt’s call for hauliers to share data

In an initiative that shall help lay the foundations for the future of zero-emission road transport in Scotland, Edinburgh’s Heriot Watt University is leading a project that encourages hauliers to share vital data.

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Directed by Professor Philip Greening, Heriot Watt’s Director of The Centre for Sustainable Road Freight and the Centre for Logistics and Sustainability, the project seeks to identify strategic locations for on-route charging or refuelling facilities, and offer recommendations to investors for charging facility prioritisation and phasing.

To get the inside track on the project, and learn how it will help to shape Scotland’s switch to zero-emission haulage, we spoke to Professor Philip Greening himself.

From what we know now, where is charging most likely to happen?

Once the ‘Charging or refuelling needs for trucks in Scotland’ project gathers sufficient data, it will be possible to pinpoint where charging infrastructure is required. However, in the meantime, with the information we have at present, what hypotheses can be made about where charging infrastructure should be constructed?

Quite simply, as Professor Greening highlighted during our discussion, charging should take place first and foremost where HGVs are regularly stopping already.

“You don’t want to interfere with the logistics system, or you want to interfere with it as little as possible,” explained Professor Greening. “That means that you want to ideally charge vehicles where they currently stop. So the most obvious place is at a warehouse where they have to unload. That’s a period of time when the vehicle isn’t available for anything else, making it a good place to charge vehicles if you can.”

For the same reason, Professor Greening believes lorry parks where drivers stop for their obligatory rest periods would also be ideal locations for charging facilities.

Moreover, when it comes to service stations, one aspect that will influence the demand for charging will be whether so-called ‘electronic highways’ are built on key routes.

“You can put an electric road system where there’s overhead cables that can charge vehicles dynamically, allowing them to move and charge at the same time. You would only ever do that on the strategic road network or the main trunk roads. That would mean that when trucks stop at most service stations, they’d already be charged. That would naturally mean the charging requirements would be less,” Professor Greening told Trans.INFO.

Could private interests see road users prioritised over haulage?

As for the charging infrastructure at these service stations, is there a danger that these new facilities could be more geared towards car users than freight vehicles?

Professor Greening is not concerned that such an outcome will come to fruition:

“I don’t think so at the moment to be honest. The people who are making it their business to provide HGV charging facilities are interested in putting them into service stations, and the service stations themselves are accepting of those charging facilities,” the professor told Trans.INFO.

On the other hand, Greening noted how grid capacity constraints could prove to be an issue at some sites:

“The issue is that there may be capacity constraints that determine how many chargers you can have. So the easy wins will be to put chargers where there is supply capacity, or where you can have off grid generation feeding the chargers. Then you don’t have to bother about your connection to the grid, as you’d generate electricity locally.”

Scotland, green energy and the UK

Research has shown how much a greener grid can really boost the decarbonisation benefits of road freight going electric. With that in mind, does Scotland’s abundance of green energy make it the ideal place to embrace the decarbonisation that comes from the switch to electric HGVs?

In Professor Greening’s opinion, the fact that so much road freight flows throughout the UK means that people really need to think about the move to zero-emission freight within a UK-wide context.

“It is certainly true that the decarbonisation of the grid drives the decarbonisation of transport. It’s also true that Scotland is making more of a contribution because of its green electricity generation, and Scotland should be proud of that. You need a holistic picture rather than the sort of local picture though, because trucks from the rest of the UK go to Scotland and back. So you need a UK-wide strategy for the electrification of transport,” said Professor Greening.

The cost of switching to electric

Addressing energy costs, Professor Greening emphasises that electric trucks, despite higher initial capital costs, are more economical when it comes to the total cost of ownership.

“Operating an electric truck is still going to be cheaper than operating a diesel or any other option. It’s the cheapest option for operational costs. They have less maintenance and they’re cheaper to run. They pay for themselves because they are well utilised,” he pointed out.

The startup costs are nonetheless a serious barrier to entry, Greening admits.

“The real penalty is in the capital costs of buying one. A diesel truck now is somewhere in the region of £100,000, while an electric equivalent is going to be around £200,000-£300,000.”

The extra cost here, says Greening, is placing additional risk onto the “first movers” who do invest in electric vehicles earlier than their competitors.

“It will be 2-3 years before that extra investment breaks even. So I can incur a penalty by being a first mover. That’s part of the problem at the moment; nobody wants to be the first mover as that’s where all the risk is. If you’re a 2nd, 3rd or 4th mover, you get the benefits from those 1st movers because the technology starts to decrease in price, the infrastructure starts to be built up, and so on and so forth. So being a first mover is a bit of a disadvantage at the moment to some organisations.” Professor Greening told Trans.INFO.

Given these high costs, Greening stresses that incentives, as well as certainty regarding charging infrastructure, is required to convince haulage companies that investing in electric vehicles is the right thing to do.

Why data sharing is vital for the development of electric road freight

Moving back on to the subject of the Heriot Watt University study, Greening is keen to underline how important it is that hauliers share their data.

“We need the logistics industry to buy into the fact that sharing data is going to ease the problem for everyone. Without it, you are going to be faced with high levels of uncertainty about investment. That uncertainty means it’s likely to be more expensive than it needs to be. So it’s in everybody’s interest to share data.”

The professor also emphasised how universities can serve as trustworthy parties to share data with:

“Sharing data can be problematic, which means you need trusted partners to share the data with. That’s where I think universities are well placed. We don’t have a commercial interest in the freight sector. We just want to make things work better for everybody.”

Greening added that besides haulage companies themselves, the people behind the project are talking to aggregators and digital logistics companies to utilise more data.

Why time is of the essence

Meanwhile, the need to electrify road freight quickly is evident, says Professor Greening. As he put it, “Nature is not going to forgive us and allow us more time”.

This in turn presents a severe challenge, and with every delay, the consequences become greater, as Greening explained:

“The problem with delaying the transition is that it shortens the window we’ve got to spend the same amount of money. So the intensity of spending is increasing the more we delay, and there are real consequences to that.”

Those consequences, according to Professor Greening, would be that money would have to be taken away from productivity investments. This would also generate its own knock-on effects:

“Any delay will decrease GDP and increase inflation. It shortens the investment window, diverting investment funds away from productivity and forces companies to increase the cost of their services and products to cover the cost of the investment.”

The power of digital twins

Another aspect of Professor Greening’s work concerns digital twins.

To what extent could the use of digital twins help to optimise Scotland’s transition to electric road freight? In the professor’s opinion, digital twinning has the power to do a lot.

“The real benefit to digital twinning is it allows you to make automated, dynamic decisions on the fly. This enables you to optimise your fleet or your operation, or the country based on what you are seeing right now,” said Greening.

Beyond the advantages of real time optimisation, Greening notes that additional benefits can be derived from a federated system of digital twins in which entire systems can be optimised in real time.

“Most of the commercial people are looking at digital twins at the moment to deliver a level of optimisation focused on a company’s operations, or even just an asset. That’s great; it’s better than not having them. The real power is in the federated system though, where you can plug in a digital twin with another digital twin on the same backbone and optimise over a greater pool of resources and opportunity,” said the professor.

This could help to optimise truck capacity utilisation, the integration of transport modes, and port operations among other things.

More generally, Greening highlights 3 key areas where digital twins can really be harnessed to effect; designing the future system, optimising that system, and optimising the digital freight technologies.

Regarding the first of these two areas, Professor Greening told Trans.INFO:

“The future system is going to be expensive, and we want to minimise the cost of getting there. We want to avoid poor investments, white elephants and stranded assets. We can do that digitally better than we can do if we were playing in the real world. We can fail fast and learn fast at no risk.”

As for the third, Greening added:

“A diesel truck can travel long distances and then refuel in a short period of time. An electric truck can travel shorter distances and will take longer to refuel. These new constraints mean you have to change your operations, and digital twinning will allow us to visualise what those changes mean and how they can be best organised.”

Finally, with climate change set to bring more road disruption to the UK, Greening sees a key role for digital twins in keeping freight moving around the country:

“We need to make sure that we’ve got a resilient infrastructure whereby when we have storms, we can keep goods moving around the country. That’s the role of a digital model at least – probably a digital twin so we can react in real time. For instance, a bridge near my home was washed away recently. When something like this happens, the traffic and the flow of goods could be redirected instantly and we could re-balance the network thanks to having the real time capability to visualise and analyse the consequences of disruption. The next 5 years will be critical – we have to design the future transport system and make significant progress in implementing it,” concluded Professor Greening.