With so many manufacturers already testing advanced truck concepts and technology continuing to reshape the tractor and trailer – both literally and figuratively – the trucking landscape is changing. New technologies allow for things like route planning and fuel efficiency to be taken to the next level.
Today, we will take a look at a few new technologies that may reshape the truck you drive in the future. After all, the future is now.
The Turbine-Electric Drivetrain
Although there has been plenty of innovation around the inside of the cab and the trailer, the one area where there stands to be more innovation is in the drivetrain. The standard diesel-driven model – though made better over the years – is getting a little long in the tooth.
Now, converting a truck’s diesel and automatic powertrain into a turbine-electric plug-in hybrid is easier than ever. The fact is, diesel is not getting any cheaper and global warming isn’t going away.
Still, each alternative is not without its challenges. Many hybrid models still utilize a hefty diesel engine component. Compressed natural gas may come with some storage, range and maintenance issues. While landfill gas is free, the gas must be filtered, and natural gas stations don’t run cheap.
Enter the turbine-electric drivetrain. While retrofits aren’t cheap, costing around $200,000 to complete, it’s still $300,000 less than it would be to set up a whole new diesel chassis. Though it is worth noting that a natural-gas conversion still comes in under $100,000.
For applications like city garbage trucks or regional delivery vehicles, this setup makes a lot of sense considering the constant stopping and starting. These setups deliver a turbine engine that generates 325 hp. The turbine does not propel the truck, however. Instead it turns a generator that produces energy sent to lithium ion batteries.
The batteries then power a set of electric motors. The motors drive through 4-speed gearboxes. There is no differential on the rear tandem axle. Together, the electric motors can generate up to 1,000 hp and 40,000 lb-feet of torque. Of course, for most applications that kind of power will be electronically limited.
During braking, the motors become generators and send electricity back to the batteries. This prevents the turbine from working too hard and limits wear on foundation brakes. Expect plug-in capability to come in around 40 miles on grid power alone. Add the turbine generator and you get potentially unlimited range.
It is believed this powertrain could potentially save 50 to 90 percent in fuel over a traditional diesel setup. Systems like these could one day go a long way to easing air quality and fuel efficiency concerns.
Barriers to Natural Gas
Due to the increased interest in transitioning away from standard diesel powertrains, many fleets have been turning to natural gas. Unfortunately, this fuel source is not without its own drawbacks.
According to a recent joint-study by the Environmental Defense Fund and Columbia University, the challenge with natural gas powered trucks lies in the main ingredient: Methane. Methane has 84 times more warming power than carbon dioxide when you scale it out over 20 years.
The problem doesn’t lie in the trucks however. Natural gas trucks have a great potential to help reduce the impacts of climate change, but the emissions from the manufacturing methods that produce and deliver the fuel must be reduced.
While the report does make the point that natural gas should remain a crucial part of our energy infrastructure, the report did raise serious questions about its viability in the transportation sector. Would large-scale moves simply make things worse or would they contribute to a truly climate-positive model? Only time will tell.