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Examining The Case For “Greener” Trucks

Some of you may not recall the days when black smoke provided itself as the obvious signature of a tractor belching its diesel fuel somewhere down the road.

Yet you think we are talking a time way long passed, say fifty years or so. Actually, no, we are referring to a little less than a couple decades ago. If you compare a 1998 model big rig with one of today, you would find that the truck of 20 years ago put out more smog and particulate matter by orders of magnitude.

Keep in mind, this was before regulations compelled many manufacturers to take a harder look at their fuel efficiency and smog-reducing measures. The drop in pollutant levels seen in vehicles meeting the latest emission standards make the trucks of the late 90s look like fuel efficiency’s yesterday’s news; and this is a good thing.

Nor are the gains made by the trucking industry relegated to just clean diesels or more efficient engines. Cleaner-burning fuels – from natural gas to propane autogas and battery power – are proving themselves in the marketplace.

The market where there will be real potential for new fuel technologies are for those used in medium-duty applications where predictable ranges and life cycles are far more precise.

Considering we’ve been talking plenty about electric trucks, it seemed a perfect transition into discussing the need for these technologies.

Whether or Not Climate Change is Real

At this point, without taking a hard position on it, here at the QuickTSI Blog, we advocate for advancements in technologies in all forms. Provided we aren’t putting good, hard-working people out of a job, we see no reason to continue down a road many manufacturers started long ago.

There is an underlying change happening within the industry and overall business climate. Diesel prices help alternative-fueled equipment make gains in new markets, despite their steep price tag. Indeed, many fleets feel this is just the direction the future is heading, so they pay more upfront for what they believe will be more gain in the long term.

In this discussion, it’s important to put politics and opinion aside. This should be a discussion based on fact, and the fact is, corporations themselves are making the push for cleaner air. Even with a new administration in office, states can still make their own laws, and California continues to set the standard.

Still, industry players mostly affected by the state’s desire to reduce greenhouse gases to 1990 levels within three years are already preparing themselves.

Since vehicle and part manufacturers generally market to a global audience, they must also take global trends in mind as they set their business plans for the years to come.

No matter what treaty or accord the United States may or may not be in today or tomorrow, manufacturers, corporations and industry players are all collectively make the push to improve technology and stay committed to aggressive targets that they’ve set for themselves.

Trucking’s Thirst for Diesel

If there is to be a quest for the “Greener” truck, then the industry itself will eventually have to be weaned off diesel as its primary fuel. Furthermore, we are living in an age of carbon offsets. Are the manufacturing methods creating alternative fuels themselves environmentally friendly?

Consider this: A fleet may have just leased 100 new Nikola One semi-trucks thinking what they are doing is a fantastic environmental move. In fact, it may be a much better PR move than in environmental one.

Where is the power coming from by which those vehicles are charged? Sure, renewables are a great way to get energy without environmentally-free electricity, but at the time of this writing they only comprise 14.9 percent of U.S. consumption.

In the United States, we still get the vast majority of our power from burning coal. Another near-third comes from natural gas. What many say is that with today’s energy mix, diesel could still be just economical as going all-electric, if you at least view it from a bigger picture perspective and ask where the energy is actually coming from.

Should renewable energy take up at least a fifth of the share – or more – of the energy mix, could there be a better business rationalization for electrifying the fleet?

Challenges Facing Electric Vehicles

Should we reach a point where renewable energy makes up enough to make electric vehicles worth their negative carbon output, many wonder about the cost and weight associates with the battery packs being used in electric commercial motor vehicles (CMV).

Between the lower cost of diesel, clean diesel technologies, America’s reliance on coal and other factors, the marketplace – as usual – decides where and when these products emerge, and in what forms.

For this reason, many new electric applications are being done in lighter commercial markets. Certainly, there is a business case emerging to move towards these vehicles, but that does not mean that a full fleet-wide transition is in every motor carrier’s windshield at the moment.

Still, despite the cons, the stern belief across many industry-wide players is that this is the direction the winds are blowing. OEMs are already getting in on the action, not waiting for government pressures – or lack thereof.

Ford, as an example, has just announced plans for XL Hybrids, Lightning Hybrids and Motiv Power Systems. These types of technologies can already be optioned in Ford’s medium-duty truck, transit and van series and chassis.

The Technology Matures

As an industry, trucking has now moved passed whether electric systems are reliable. At this point it’s a matter of changing the nature of the grid these vehicles draw their power from.

Here’s a statistic to chew on: $1,000 per kilowatt hour in 2008 down to $125 per kilowatt hour by 2022. At what point will battery costs align? Somewhere around $80 per kilowatt would put the technologies on parity.

Technologies in questions shouldn’t be constrained to battery-only technologies, either. Whether we talk about natural gas, propane or even biofuels generated from organic waste, new technologies are making the world of alternative fuels much larger and its excesses more readily available.

No matter where you land at the power generation versus electric vehicle bottom line argument, this fact remains: When a heavy truck using diesel power is replaced by the same truck powered by natural gas, emissions drop by around 25%.

Now put yourself in a scenario where that natural gas is derived from organic waste and it isn’t difficult to see where the synergies lie. It could potentially double the environmental savings on said vehicle. It also offers a level of convenience that can’t be had utilizing old methods.

Imagine a medium-duty fleet coming in for overnight refueling utilizing a slow-fill natural gas setup. Other scenarios involve fleet operations that utilize vehicles under the gross vehicle weight of 80,000 pounds that can be pulled utilizing either 12L engines or newer technologies. Being interoperable and inter-swappable will be a key element of the trucking technologies of tomorrow.

Of course, these technologies will stretch across the industry as particular fleets find needs for them. Obviously in the low-diesel price environment, there will be less demand, but it will still be there.

Diesel Isn’t the Only Cheap Fuel

Even though diesel’s price may be cheap today, it could be higher tomorrow, and furthermore, it isn’t the only affordable power source on the market. Propane prices are also still pretty cheap. Propane engine models are now on par with their diesel cousins – in some cases even better – where performance measures are concerned.

Other propane advantages include longer oil drain intervals and nice, clean, quick starts. The downside? The tank you’ll be using doesn’t store as much gasoline as a typical diesel. But it does put you close enough.

The fact is, if you visit a truck show just about anywhere nowadays, you can find heavy- medium- and light-duty electric and hybrid-electric “Green” trucks occupying floor space right alongside their contemporary gasoline and diesel counterparts.

Does this mean it’s time for your fleet to start making huge investments in new technologies? Surely not. It is important to consider your application. Likely, the last market to adopt such technologies will likely be the long-haul OTR routes that have more specific requirements, though if Nikola has anything to say about it, electric trucks will be fine during those long journeys.

But even in those applications, hydrogen still plays a role. In the end, a fuel needs to be used for these vehicles, whether it is generated at the source then powered into the vehicle or whether it’s pumped into it at a station, there are a lot of considerations when it comes to the “Green” truck.

As with any major decision related to technological investments into your firm, consider this one wisely, but remember, the movement towards these technologies didn’t start yesterday and it won’t end tomorrow. Will you be prepared for it as either industry or government pressures compel your motor carrier to make the change?

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