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Inside Innovation: Understanding the carbon cost of your company pickup fleet

John Bleasby
Inside Innovation: Understanding the carbon cost of your company pickup fleet

North America has had a passionate love affair with pickup trucks for decades. In 2021, pickups represented over 20 per cent of all vehicles sold.

Outside metropolitan areas, pickup trucks are even more dominant. Although many have commercial and agricultural purposes, most are used for personal use. Rear cargo covers hide empty beds. The luxurious interiors, beautiful paint finishes and enormous aluminum wheels were never intended for a work environment.

Operators of light and mid-sized commercial vehicles, however, must wrestle with practical factors when making their fleet decisions.

The fuel economy of the most popular models of Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) pickup trucks ranges from about 10 litres to just under 20 litres/100 km. With gas prices soaring, this affects pickups severely since they are far less fuel efficient than most SUVs and almost all sedans. That hits company bottom lines immediately.

Meanwhile, the recent federal budget has allocated $548 million over the next three years for emission reduction incentives for medium and heavy-duty vehicles and wants half of all light duty trucks sold to be zero-emission by 2030. It will also invest in more EV charging stations across the country. In contrast, Ontario and Alberta have reduced gas taxes at the pump and others may follow.

It creates a landscape of conflicting policies to navigate.

Major auto manufacturers can see the future as well or better than their customers. While they continue to aggressively market behemoth ICE pickups, most have announced Battery Electric (BEV) versions of pickups alongside their BEV sedans. Billions of invested dollars are at stake.

BEV pickup trucks are beginning to look more attractive beyond the cost of gas. Purchase or lease considerations now extend to carbon. Any contractor with ESG mandates promising carbon reductions in their operations, or simply concerned about the environmental impact of their vehicles in general, should weigh ICEs against BEVs when making decisions.

Consider the correlation between trees and carbon. Mature trees absorb carbon from the atmosphere. The most popular models of ICE pickup trucks emit between eight and 15 metric tons of carbon a year, based on 30,000 kilometres of mixed city and highway driving. That amount of carbon sent into the atmosphere each year requires between 13 and 25 acres of mature forest to absorb for each pickup truck.

The other issue to consider is the lifetime, cradle-to-grave carbon cost of a BEV pickup versus an ICE version.

A recent study conducted by the University of Michigan published by Environmental Research Letters concluded that the carbon impact of BEVs over their lifetime, whether sedan, SUV or pickup, was 64 per cent lower than the ICE counterpart. The reduction in carbon correlates to vehicle size. That means EV pickups offer the most carbon reductions over ICE equivalents, estimated by researchers as 74 metric tons.

Researchers took factors such as the embodied carbon in vehicle components and materials, the weight of batteries, and overall weight into consideration. The fossil fuel component was excluded since it is an operational carbon matter, not an embodied carbon input. Of course, the source of electricity in power grids varies across the country. However, as grids continue to decarbonize, electricity’s future will become cleaner over time.

Taking emitted carbons and embodied carbons together, the environmental benefits of switching to a BEV from gasoline or diesel are considerable. There are additional operational cost savings to consider. For example, maintenance costs are acknowledged to be lower for a BEV than for an ICE vehicle.

Perhaps new questions need to be asked during a corporate vehicle fleet review: How many pickup trucks are really required? Has increased telecommuting from home and remote monitoring of project sites reduced the amount of company driving required? Would a regular sedan or small SUV suffice for most travel, given that pickups, whether ICE or BEV, are the worst option in terms of operational economy?

And aside from pure dollars and cents, there’s also the value associated with an improved corporate image to consider as well.

John Bleasby is a Coldwater, Ont.-based freelance writer. Send comments and Inside Innovation column ideas to editor@dailycommercialnews.com

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