Heading for a ‘Messy Middle’

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December 11, 2019 Vol. 16 No. 25

It’s a brilliant phrase, “messy middle”, coined by the North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE) in its latest guidance report. Entitled ‘Viable Class 7/8 Electric, Hybrid, and Alternative Fuel Tractors’, it’s the Council’s fourth and final report on electric trucks. It focuses on regional-haul vehicles in applications that might cover about 300 miles a day, give or take. More specifically, the focus was on dry goods and refrigerated van trailers, which are the trailer types with the greatest number of miles in North America.

The underlying assumption of the electric report series is that we, collectively, are aiming to wean ourselves off fossil fuels and move the trucking industry into a zero-emissions future – either by choice or government mandate. This final document charts the next two decades along that path, from 2020 to 2040, and assesses the most likely ways to get there.

The ‘messy middle’ phrase refers to the future point when alternate fuels and power sources, some of which we already know pretty well, will have substantially matured but no single one will dominate. There will be myriad choices for truck owners to make, and it will all be a bit of a muddle. That’s likely to happen around 2030, says the NACFE report, and by 2040 we’ll know what’s what and fleets of all sorts will have chosen their favorites and committed to them.

In the end, says executive director Mike Roeth, electric is most likely to win the game. Speaking during a telephone press conference yesterday, he lauded the “elegant simplicity” of this option, but he did allow that we can’t yet discount any of the technologies listed below because we just don’t know enough yet.

The spectrum of near-term fuel and power choices examined in the report includes:

  • Commercial battery electric (CBEV)
  • Fuel cell hybrid electric (FCEV)
  • Compressed natural gas (CNG)
  • Renewable natural gas (RNG)
  • Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG)
  • Propane (LPG)
  • Hybrid diesel electric (HDE)
  • Renewable diesel (RD)

Given that the industry’s experience with some of those options is almost totally non-existent, there is an enormous amount of learning to be done in the next decade or so before intelligent and practical choices can be made.

NACFE SAYS IT FOUND NO clear short-term winners or losers in alternative fuels. Instead, each alternative will play a part as vehicles become more specialized for the jobs they do. Decisions will also be influenced by factors that include regional or local energy availability and operational requirements, such as day or night operations; slip-seat driver systems; and regional, local, or long-haul applications.

The study team offered these six major findings:

  • North American freight movement is becoming more predictable, with dedicated routes enabled by e-commerce and other technologies, offering better duty cycles for alternative powertrains.
  • Each alternative fuel powertrain offers benefits in the short term compared to current diesel and may have enough duty-cycle scale to offer total-cost-of-ownership and emissions savings.
  • Commercial battery electric vehicles (CBEVs) and fuel cell trucks will be capable of lower total cost of ownership in the 2030 time frame.
  • Vehicle specifications will be better optimized for the duty cycle and technology of the first user, limiting the applicability of the equipment for second or third users.
  • A future zero-emission freight world will have only electric-based vehicles (CBEV, FCEV, or catenary electric), powered well-to-wheel from truly renewable sources, such as hydro, solar, and wind.


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