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January 5, 2011 Vol. 7, No. 1

Wow, can’t believe I’m launching the seventh volume of this e-newsletter, this quasi-blog, this thing that’s really just an expression of my fascination with the technology of trucking. And I have every reason to think it will endure because we’re now in the first year of a decade that will, I think, produce more innovation than we’ve seen in many years.

The last decade, after all, was largely consumed by efforts to meet three increasingly stringent levels of emissions control. Not enough resources for huge innovation on other fronts. Hundreds of thousands of engineering hours and billion of dollars later, we have big diesels that do indeed spew out many fewer bits of carbon and whiffs of nitrogen oxide. It’s quite remarkable.

You know there’s a ‘but’ coming.

But we’re only now starting to claw our collective way back to the fuel economy we knew and loved 10 years ago, in 2001. Truck operators have paid that bill, one that’s entirely too large for me to comprehend, let alone calculate. Billions of dollars spent to make diesels cleaner, maybe more billions spent on burning extra fuel as a result.

Sensible? Nah.

I’ve never been able to balance these particular books, even less so now that Washington — with Ottawa in lock step — has decreed that another miracle must be achieved to counteract the last one. An across-the-board fuel-efficiency gain of something like 20% by 2018. And the suits even admit that they don’t have a clue as to how that target will be met. Publicly, no less, they’ve said that they simply trust the engineers to pull it off. Yet they haven’t expressed any concern publicly, and I’d bet not privately either, for the poor truck buyer who’ll be paying yet again for new technologies of one stripe or another.

Can the engineers do it? Sure, of course they can, given enough investment. Diesel engineering has become a very sophisticated enterprise, of necessity, at least as far as air- and fuel- and exhaust-management systems are concerned, and the folks who used to have many pens and a slide rule sticking out of their shirt pockets already know of one solution: waste-heat recovery.

That won’t be needed ’til mid-decade because there’s general agreement that existing technologies can get us to about 2014 with no sweat — and essentially no extra expense for the buyer. After that, who knows? Capturing waste exhaust heat and turning it back into horsepower is at this point just a clear possibility, but nobody says it’s a given.

AND WHAT ELSE IS COMING? Well, the list is nearly endless, many examples coming from the safety side of things where legislation will yet again play a role. We’ve got a stopping-distance mandate, and I’d guess a roll-stability-control demand isn’t far behind, for example.

And manufacturers may once again have the resources required by innovation. I’m not about to declare the recession over as others have done — the damage incurred was too big, and some of it was structural — but it’s clear that truck sales are up, and that means research-and-development dollars will soon be available again.

ACT Research has a pretty rosy picture painted, reporting this week that
December preliminary net orders of heavy-duty Class 8 commercial vehicles for North American markets were 25,500 units, an increase of 115% compared to December of 2009.
“The industry closed 2010 with a string of three strong months of net orders. With nearly 71,000 orders booked, the fourth quarter was the best quarter for Class 8 vehicles since the second quarter of 2006,” said Kenny Vieth, president and senior analyst at ACT. “The ramp-up in demand is consistent with the upcycle we have been forecasting for over a year and confirms production levels will increase significantly in 2011."

Encouraging, eh?

AS WE MOVE FURTHER INTO THE DECADE it’s a safe bet to say that the price of diesel will rise, as will environmental concerns, so there will be increasing pressure to find other fuels. Natural gas is an obvious option, and already making serious headway in some applications, but there will be an enormous amount of work done on non-crop-based biofuels. That’s already the case, especially in Europe.

The European Union has promised to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by 20% before 2020 – increasing that figure to 30% if other countries also toughen their eco-targets. Don’t hold your breath on that latter point, especially as the demand for oil is skyrocketing in China and to a lesser extent India. In neither country is there yet any evidence of serious environmental concern.

But in Europe one fuel in particular seems to be gaining a lot of traction: an entirely new type of biofuel called dimethyl ether, or DME.

It’s the focus of a unique development project joining together the EU, the Swedish Energy Agency, Danish chemicals specialist Haldor Topsoe, fuel giants Total and Preem and biofuel producer Chemrec, among others like Volvo. The latter has several trucks running on DME, like the one pictured here, and that group includes a hybrid-electric garbage truck in actual service.

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Rolf Lockwood is editor emeritus of Today's Trucking and a regular contributor to Trucknews.com.

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