The days when a hitchhiker like Bobby McGee would thumb a diesel down and ride it all the way to New Orleans are numbered. That’s because trucks will soon be driverless, and the vehicles will be electric.
The global trucking industry is facing a similar shift to the one shaping the autonomous, electric cars of the future.
In the coming years, the trucks that carry between 70 and 75 percent of goods to local markets in the U.S. and Europe won’t run on fossil fuels and will move in road trains of multiple e-trucks, with the lead truck controlling those behind just like the famous long trucks in the Australian outback linking four or five trailers to haul heavy loads across vast distances.
Preparing for that future is the job of Barna Erdélyi, Deputy Chief Executive Officer at Waberer’s International Nyrt. Based in Budapest, the company’s 4300 strong trucking fleet is one of Europe’s largest and operates in 28 countries.
What’s this about?
“People think trucking is an old-fashioned industry, but the entire sector is changing. Here in Europe, we’re leading the charge. We’re investing heavily now to prepare for the e-trucks, road trains and driverless cabs of tomorrow,” Erdélyi says.
Waberer’s is one of Hungary’s largest enterprises. It began as a family business in 1948, was taken over as a state-owned enterprise in 1966 and then moved to a hybrid holding that today is a public company. It was privatized in 1994, and last year raised more than 45 million Euro in an IPO on the Budpest Stock Exchange, that qualified it as Hungary’s biggest stock offering in 20 years.
The trucking industry is the life blood of any economy because it creates the essential link between consumers and the things they want and need.
Without trucks, things would come to a standstill, but the toll on the environment has been massive. Despite efforts to clean up, transportation still causes about 25 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. And while trucks make up just 1% of traffic, according to the US Department of Transportation, they create more than a quarter of all road pollution.
Diesel won’t be disappearing down the drain any time soon, but there are ways to reduce dependence on oil. Improving vehicle efficiency to reduce oil and gas consumption is one way. Another is to switch to alternative fuels such as natural gas or electricity and use trucks fueled by them.
Who are the pioneers?
Business can play a key role in this change, and many companies, especially those in consumer goods, realize they have a lot of clout when it comes to moving the needle.
That’s why some of them are banding together in global initiatives like the EV100 to accelerate the transition to electric vehicles (EVs) and make electric transport the new normal by 2030.
“That’s good for us,” says Barna Erdélyi. “Most of our customers like IKEA and Unilever have stringent sustainability goals to reduce their carbon footprint. When companies like that commit to EVs, that gives those of us in the transportation business the required critical mass and confidence to move as well.”
How change will happen
Waberer’s Deputy CEO is optimistic.
“We’re in the best position to partner with companies like IKEA and Unilver because we already have a cutting-edge fleet with top of the line technology and fuel efficiency. But change begins inside our own organization with a lot of hard work,” he explained at the recent SAP Quality Awards Ceremony in Heidelberg, Germany.
Waberer’s won Silver in the Innovation category for implementing SAP S/4HANA to consolidate finance and logistics processes across 56 companies, reducing month-end activities by 60 percent.
The transition to electric transport that will cut millions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year will take time. Transporters like Waberer’s already use alternative fuels such as compressed or liquefied natural gas (CNG and LNG) which are cleaner than diesel as they move towards a low carbon future with electric fleets.
According to Erdélyi, who joined Waberer’s after his stint as CFO of Hungarian State Railways, the question of e-trucks is a matter of technology and infrastructure.
He envisions introducing them first in city transportation where trucks travel short distances and have greater access to charging stations. Long haul trucking across Europe with an e-fleet of linked trucks is more challenging. Unlike the homogenous landscape of a single, vast country like Australia, European truckers move across a multitude of small countries each with their own regulations and fragmented infrastructure.
The road ahead
Erdélyi believes in a connected world. While trucks and roads connect consumers and producers across borders, IT is what connects companies and allows them to automate and standardize processes that make it easier to do business in Europe’s highly complex logistics landscape.
For him, a cleaner future requires investments in technology for more efficient fleet management and big data management for dynamic decision making. “I spend a lot of time talking to our suppliers to understand how innovation can be the bridge between our business and a sustainable future for all of us,” he says.
So will modern day hitchhikers be able to thumb an e-truck down? Probably not if it’s in the middle of a road train led by an automated cab. But who knows? Someone, somewhere out there must already be writing the hitchhiker’s guide to the new, clean vehicles that will be truckin’ across countries in decades to come.