(R)Evolution of the commercial vehicle industry

(April 15th, 2020). Interview with DI Dr. Georg Pachta-Reyhofen, truck industry expert, former CEO of MAN SE and now member of the Supervisory Board of the SAG Group

What development do you see with regard to alternative drive systems in the commercial vehicle industry?

Georg Pachta-Reyhofen (GPR), former CEO of MAN SE: Expected stricter EU-wide CO2 guidelines and the preferential tax treatment of e-mobility will increase the pressure on the development of CO2-neutral drive systems for commercial vehicles as well. This is a subject I approach in a nuanced way, because battery production for electric motors is extremely energy-intensive. It is only after driving around 100,000 kilometers that the CO2 emissions of a mid-range car with a modern diesel engine exceed those produced during battery manufacture. The CO2 balance also takes into account the electricity generated during operation. In terms of the achievable energy density, the weight of the batteries currently in use is relatively high – chemical storage of energy is much more efficient. I therefore see the future of e-mobility more in urban areas, where shorter ranges are not a problem. In local transport, I also anticipate an increased use of trucks and buses powered by LNG or CNG.

What role will other alternative fuel types play?

GPR: The development of alternative drive systems and fuels is already in full swing in Asia and Europe in particular. I am convinced that hydrogen will play a central role in long-distance transport. The strategic importance of hydrogen as a fuel is also demonstrated by the fact that countries such as Japan, China, South Korea, Germany, Switzerland and a supranational EU alliance are focusing their research on H2. The fantastic thing about hydrogen is that it can be produced absolutely CO2- neutral from water via electrolysis – using electricity from renewable energies. When H2 is burned, water vapour is produced again in an environmentally friendly cycle. Pure hydrogen can be compressed or liquefied and used as a fuel for combustion engines as well as for fuel cells. Furthermore, it is possible to convert hydrogen into methane in a methanisation reactor using CO2 (e.g. from the air or exhaust air from power plants). The advantage of methane – i.e. synthetic natural gas – in addition to its greater range comes the fact that existing infrastructure such as natural gas caverns and pipelines can be used for storage and transport. In a further step, the synthetically produced methane can also be converted into a synthetic liquid fuel (so-called “e-fuels”), which then enables vehicles to have an even greater range while retaining the current combustion engine. Technically, all of this has already been achieved today, but it will be a long time before the concepts are competitive and implemented. I do not expect the technologies I have mentioned to become established alongside electric battery solutions until 2030. It will then probably take another 10 years before a nationwide H2 infrastructure with filling stations is established.

Keyword digitalization: What effects will this have on truck traffic?

GPR: Digitalisation brings great opportunities to improve safety and efficiency in truck traffic through real-time communication between vehicles, control centres and carriers. A prerequisite for functioning connectivity, however, is the expansion of the 5G network and an improvement in the sensor technology and computer performance of on-board systems. This is also essential for the further development of electronic safety systems such as fatigue assistants, electronic stability programs, turning and emergency brake assistants. These features are preliminary stages for the development of autonomous driving, which is very interesting for the truck sector. With platooning, for example, driverless vehicles can be electronically coupled to each other at close intervals and thus drive with less air resistance. This saves personnel and fuel costs and theoretically enables 24-hour operation of the trucks. Electronic systems can also be used to continuously monitor and adjust loading capacities, carry out technical checks fully automatically and announce repairs in good time. However, it will be years before fully autonomous driving becomes part of our everyday life. There are still a number of technical and legal hurdles to be overcome and the technical implementation of the so-called “last mile” with autonomous trucks has not yet been solved.

You have been on the Supervisory Board of SAG since the beginning of the year. How will your many years of know-how as a manager in the commercial vehicle industry contribute to SAG?

GPR: From my more than 30 years at MAN, many years as head of development at Commercial Vehicles and as CEO of the Group, I have a deep knowledge of the market and all the relevant topics in the industry from the manufacturer’s point of view very well. And from my time at MAN I know SAG from the customer perspective. I would like to bring all my experience into the company within the scope of my mandate. SAG scores high points with customer orientation and flexibility and has established itself as a reliable sparring partner in the development of intelligent solutions at OEMs. I envision a long future for the diesel tank as SAG’s main product. It is also ideally suited for operation with synthetic fuels, which will replace fossil diesel in trucks in the long term. In addition, SAG has established itself very well as a technology leader with its developments in cryo tank technology and rheocasting. In general: Lightweight is a huge topic and aluminium is becoming increasingly important in many areas. Very good omens, therefore, for SAG to be optimally equipped for the coming challenges.

Further information about SAG Group: www.sag.at