Diesel Dilemma: Are the days of our favorite fuel numbered?

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Rudolf Diesel must be rolling in his grave.

The 19th-century inventor gave birth to the engine that bears his name. Now the country where he did the work is looking to bring the technology to an end. German legislators recently passed a resolution that calls for a ban of all internal combustion engines as early as 2030.

Proposed bans are not limited to Germany, either. World capitals such as Paris, Mexico City, Madrid and Athens announced at a conference in Mexico this week that they plan to deny diesel cars and trucks by 2025. In each case, governments are promising incentives to bring about the change, all in the name of slashing emissions.

Now Nikola Motor founder Trevor Milton is promising to produce electric over-the-road trucks known as the Nikola One, leaning on an electric drive powered by hydrogen fuel cells, lithium-ion batteries, and regenerative braking. If all goes according to his plan, the truck will be in production by 2020, at a rate of 50,000 units per year.

The company hasn’t built more than a prototype. Not yet. But it’s also difficult to ignore some of its heavyweight partners including Ryder System, Meritor and U.S. Express.

Nikola Motor is not alone in the search for a viable electric option. Selected vehicles including refuse trucks, delivery vans and shunt trucks have all been shown to run on battery power. And they are not always coming from known Original Equipment Manufacturers. Ian Wright, one of Tesla’s co-founders, is now promoting a range-extended electric powertrain known as the Route, which burns fuel to power the Fulcrum turbine that recharges batteries. BYD of Shenzhen, China has taken orders for its first 150 electric trucks in North America, and it enjoys financial backing by none other than Warren Buffet.

It all sounds like fodder for a science fiction novel. But many people tend to forget that gasoline was actually the fuel of choice for trucks as recently as the 1960s and ’70s. Diesel took over the top spot when gasoline prices soared, and fleets began looking for engines that could stand up to the punishing environment of over-the-road trucking. Historians might even point out that some of the first trucks on the road were powered by batteries. Canada’s first delivery vehicle? It was an electric Number 2 Coach Delivery Wagon used by Simpson’s department stores.

The push for diesel alternatives is not limited to batteries, either. Selected trucks are running on everything from natural gas to propane, biodiesel, and gas from landfill sites – even at a time when diesel prices have eased, and big-displacement natural gas engines have been pulled from the market. United Parcel Service alone has accumulated 1.6 billion kilometers of experience with alternative fuels and battery power, using a real-world laboratory of 7,200 vehicles. Ryder System has itself accumulated 160 million kilometers of experience with natural gas, with trucks including those used by Quebec’s Canadian American Transportation. Purolator even continues to rebuild and refit parallel hybrid vehicles from the now-defunct Azure Dynamics.

Diesel clearly continues to offer advantages as the industry’s fuel of choice. It’s still relatively inexpensive. The engines are robust. Fuel economy and emissions both continue to improve in the context of new Greenhouse Gas limits applied by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And with long distances between urban centers and the colder temperatures of the Great White North, Canada is hardly a welcoming environment for options with short ranges or temperature-sensitive batteries.

But we should remember how suddenly the shift from gasoline to diesel took place. It happened before networks of fueling stations and aftermarket parts were widely available. Original Equipment Manufacturers of the day suggested that gasoline was the better option, too.

You never know who will disrupt the industry next, or what form that disruption might take.

Said Nikola’s Milton, quoting business professor Oren Harari: “The electric light did not come from the continuous improvement of candles.”


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John G. Smith is Newcom Media's vice-president - editorial, and the editorial director of its trucking publications -- including Today's Trucking, trucknews.com, and Transport Routier. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.

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