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“Diesel is still the workhorse,” according to keynoter Kary Schaefer of Daimler.

Diesel reigns as alternatives expand their role in commercial trucks

Several energy options are growing as regulators, owners strive to trim fuel consumption, emissions.

Commercial truck manufacturers and users are all looking at a range of sustainable fuels, but it will be some time before they collectively displace diesel. Natural gas is making a big impact in many programs, with growing interest in renewable natural gas, while electrified powertrains also see rising use.

A number of speakers at the recent Green Truck Summit in Indianapolis said “there’s no silver bullet” among these options. Compressed and liquid natural gas are seeing solid acceptance, renewable gas and biodiesel are growing solidly, and electric power is advancing rapidly. Each fuel is best suited for different vehicle types and varied use cases.

“We’re moving from the one size fits all model we’ve had for 100 years, where diesel has been the answer,” said Julie Furber, Executive Director, Electrification, Cummins Inc. “We’re moving to a model where there is a plethora of options available. It’s up to the customer to decide what helps them maximize the mission they’re trying to achieve.”

Diesel will remain the industry workhorse even though it’s being pressured by regulators, noted keynoter Kary Schaefer, General Manager of Strategy for Daimler Trucks North America’s Freightliner Trucks and Detroit brands. A Dept. of Energy spokesman concurred that diesel will retain its role while alternatives strive to meet the price/performance levels set by ICE powertrains.

“Diesel and internal combustion engines will be with us a long time,” said Michael Berube, Director, U.S. DOE Office of Vehicle Technologies. “We’re doing research to see how we can drive energy efficiency towards 60% while achieving improvements in emissions.”

Fleet operators are using a blend of fuel types to reduce their fuel consumption and emissions. That’s being accomplished by moving to more efficient ICE vehicles, using alternative fuels, using smaller delivery vehicles and shortening routes.

“Our fleet has been tasked to reduce greenhouse gases by 20% by 2030, going from a 2015 baseline,” said Keshav Sondhi, Director, Fleet Engineering and Sustainability at PepsiCo. “Any growth in business has to be offset. That’s a big challenge, in 2015 we were 50% better than we were in the past.”

Gassing up

Many large fleets are moving quickly to expand their alternative fuel usage. Pepsi has several compressed natural gas trucks, using CNG for 40% of over road Frito Lay delivery tractors, and it’s deploying more electric vehicles in cities. UPS is taking a similar tack.

“Our alternative fuel fleet went from 5,000 in 2014 to 8,100 in 2016,” said Scott Phillippi, Senior Director of Maintenance & Engineering at UPS Corporate Automotive. “Those vehicles ran a billion miles in 2016.”

The supply of alternative fuels is increasing, helping reduce costs. But it’s often costly to install the fueling stations and set up other elements like maintenance. That’s one reason that the industry is looking at several different solutions.

“CNG is a great success story for UPS,” Phillippi said. “It’s expensive to put fueling stations in, but there’s only an incremental cost for vehicles. Liquified petroleum gas is an easier solution, installing its infrastructure is more reasonable.”

Renewable fuels are also part of this mix. Diesel made from various plants lets users move away from fossil fuels. As more companies have started producing high-quality biodiesel, many problems have been resolved.

“We have tremendous experience with biodiesel, we started using it in 2005,” said Keith Kerman, Chief Fleet Officer, New York City. “Today, we use it on over 1,000 vehicles. At the operational level, there are no maintenance issues, we’ve had no underground storage issues. As a turnkey fuel, it’s been excellent, and we have spent less on biodiesel, dramatically less.”

Other alternatives include renewable natural gas produced using waste from dairy farms and other sources.

“We use renewable natural gas when we can, our objective is to use it as much as we can,” Sondhi said. “We want to use methane that can come from food waste or animal waste.”

Charging forward

Speakers at the Summit, held in conjunction with the NTEA Work Truck Show, discussed many steps made to satisfy regulators who want to drive a shift to electric vehicles. Diverse fleet operators like New York City, PepsiCo and UPS detailed usage, as did suppliers like Cummins and Ford. Earlier this year, Ford more than doubled its investment plans for electrification, adding $6 billion to its existing $5 billion program, predicting solid growth across its production lines.

“Electrification will soon reach a tipping point,” said Graydon Reitz, Truck Vehicle Line Director, Ford Motor Company. “Our forecast is that by the time we get to 2030, the market will be split evenly between battery electric vehicles, hybrids and internal combustion engines.”

Cummins’ Furber and Ford’s Reitz agreed that regulators need to set goals that OEMs and fleet can achieve more easily. Many current rules are dependent on consumer acquisitions, sometimes penalizing companies for sales growth of ICE vehicles. For example, fleet owners could be given percentages of vehicles they operate.

“Government needs to regulate shuttle fleets and others to go to a certain percentage of EVs,” Reitz said. “We need government to create a pull situation, not a push that’s dictated by giving OEMs numbers they need to meet.”

Though speakers were largely bullish about EVs, they noted that battery power still has some ways to go before it can be considered for mainstream usage. Vehicles driven a set number of miles per day, like buses, can easily get back to charging stations. But many hurdles remain before EVs are viable for less predictable applications.

“EVs all have the same hurdles: range, weight, cost and charging,” Schaefer said. “Range is impacted by variations due to temperature, load and speed. Electricity costs vary greatly across the U.S They can range from five cents per kilowatt hour to 13-14 cents/kWh. Another factor is that electricity costs change almost hourly.”

One attendee raised the question of supply and demand for raw materials. The U.S. has become a net exporter of natural gas while reducing its oil imports. But many of the rare earth materials used in EV motors and batteries are indeed rare, and many supply sources are overseas. The DOE’s Berube said researchers have focused on material usage.

“There are two issues, the motor side and the battery side,” he said. “The newest EVs have largely gone to non-rare-earth magnets. In our work on next generation batteries, where our goal is to cut cost in half, we’ve been doing a lot to reduce the use of lithium. Going forward, cobalt will be the biggest issue.”

Berube noted that recycling will be a big factor for the production of batteries, just as it’s been for lead acid batteries. “Recycling will become one of the prime sources of feedstock for battery production,” Berube said.

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