Trend update: alternative fuels for trucks

When you read that McDonald’s UK has converted 4.2 million litres of cooking oil into 3.8 million litres of biodiesel for powering its fleet (source: FreightInTheCity) or that Scania has just trialled its first compressed natural gas-powered truck in Lithuania (Source: AutomotiveLogisticsMedia), should you be worried about being left behind in the adoption of alternative fuels and stuck with your diesel engine trucks?

Why do we need alternative fuels, what are they and what is the future for the diesel engine?

Why alternative fuels?

Diesel is the dominant fuel for heavy trucks in Europe. According to Jato Dynamics, 97% of those sold in Europe in 2018 were diesel. (source: The FT)

However, there is a race to develop alternative fuels as a way of reducing CO2 emissions and our reliance on fossil fuels to meet the environmental objectives set by the UN and EU. To help achieve these targets, the EU launched a plan to encourage the use of alternative fuels for transport through its 2017 Clean Mobility Package (source: EU). A year later, the EU put together a programme to create the infrastructure to support the adoption of alternative fuels (source: EU)

Alternative fuels

The main alternative fuels for trucks on the market are:


“Biodiesel is an alternative fuel which is similar to conventional or ‘fossil’ diesel. Biodiesel can be produced from straight vegetable oil, animal oil/fats, tallow and waste cooking oil.” (source: ESRU) Biodiesel is free from sulphur and aromatics and biologically degradable and reduces CO2 emissions by around 50% and reduces fuel costs. The equipment to enable the use of biodiesel can be retrofitted to existing vehicles. However, there are some drawbacks. Given the origins of the raw material for biodiesel, the main concerns are over the consistency and quality control of biodiesel and its potential to cause damage to engine components. (source: Daimler) That said, McDonald’s UK projected using 7.7 million litres of biodiesel, derived from recycled cooking oil, in 2018 close to its target of 8 million litres for an 80% reduction in fossil fuel use by 2020. Other companies using biogas trucks include John Lewis and Calor. (source: FreightInTheCity)

Natural gas

Natural gas is an alternative fuel with strong potential for trucks as it delivers lower CO2 emissions compared to diesel. There are greater deposits of natural gas than fossil fuel, with correspondingly lower prices for commercial use. It also has strong political support. However, adoption has been slow, due to the size and heavy weight of pressurised gas tanks that need to be mounted on the truck and a lack of gas charging fuel stations. (source: Daimler)

The main types of natural gas fuels on the market are LPG, LNG and CNG. James Westcott, a director at Gasrec said that LNG is the best option for 3-axle articulated lorries providing long distance range whilst CNG is better for refuse vehicles and mid- to lower-rigid range vehicles on shorter trips. Tim Barlow, TRL gas expert estimates that the total cost of ownership of €680,000 to run a 36-tonne rigid truck averaging 16,000 km over seven years can be reduced by €90,000 with a CNG powered engine, by €45,000 with LNG or €9,000 with LPG. However, everything depends on the UK government’s fuel duty levels which are currently fixed until 2024. (source: FreightInTheCity)

Manufacturers offering gas-powered heavy goods vehicles including Iveco,Scania and Volvo.


Hydrogen is used as a reactant with a fuel cell to creative electricity to drive an electric motor. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are zero-emission electric vehicles as they emit only water vapor. Hydrogen generates higher specific energy than batteries. Hydrogen’s lighter weight helps solve range and payload issues that come with 100% battery reliant powertrains. (source: Ballard)

A British company Ulemco is developing “the world’s first 100% hydrogen-powered combustion engine for a lorry”. (source: MotorTransport)

So what are the drawbacks of hydrogen? Hydrogen is only as environmentally-friendly as the source of energy that has gone into the creation of hydrogen. It takes significant time to refuel a hydrogen-powered truck. Whilst relatively easy to make, hydrogen is not widely available. (source: FreightInTheCity)

Examples of hydrogen-powered trucks include Toyota, Hyundai (source; Insideevs), Nikola (source: TTNews) and Toyota.


Electric trucks are powered by batteries. They have been around for some time in niche markets. Thanks to improvements in battery technology including size, performance and range, manufacturers are slowly building mid- and large-sized electric trucks to handle long haul deliveries. The high cost of the batteries and the limited availability of charging facilities have so far led to highest adoption in the light commercial vehicle and small truck categories, delivering in urban environments. (source: Wikipedia)

Manufacturers such as Tesla and Europe’s Big 7 have all made announcements about electric truck launches recently. Dutch firm Emoss also launched an electric semi-truck with a range of over 300km.

Countries including Germany, Sweden and the US are experimenting with overhead electricity lines to which a large truck can connect while driving and receive electrical power. (source: RTE)

The future

Whilst there is a lot of research and development going into alternative fuels, it is electricity that is stealing the spotlight as a future power source for trucks.

Dr. Rolf Bulander, chairman, Mobility Solutions at Boschpredicts that“In 2025, 80 to 90 percent of all trucks will be diesel-powered. But by 2030, one in four new commercial vehicles worldwide – nearly one in three in China – will be electrically driven. He also notes “Nobody who wants to give heavy trucks a secure future can afford to rule out the option of producing alternative fuels using electricity from renewables, known as synfuels.”

The adoption of electric power trains for trucks will probably rise significantly after 2025 when the cost of a battery pack for an electric vehicle is expected to fall below $150 per kWh from its current $190, reaching a cost parity with combustion engine vehicles. Until then, the diesel engine will remain king. (source: The FT)

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