Green to Gold: Waiting for the greap leap forward

by Harry Rudolfs

What will truck engines look like ten years from now? It’s anybody’s guess but alternative fuel sources will certainly be a big part of the story.

Fuel is the second largest expense for trucking companies (after wages) and the cost of diesel can only continue to spiral upwards. Alternative fuels like propane and natural gas are cheap, plentiful and cleaner burning, but with only a smattering of infrastructure, any kind of mainstream migration is still years off.

The debate over what kind of fuel is best is as old as trucking itself. The earliest manufacturers couldn’t decide whether the propellant should be steam, electricity, wood alcohol or petrol. While each type of fuel has its pros and cons, liquid natural gas (LNG) is gaining adherents.

Currently there are a handful of Canadian companies running LNG powered tractors: Groupe Robert of Boucherville, Que., has 115 LNG Peterbilts running along the 401 corridor between Quebec and Ontario; Vedder Transport of Abbotsford, B.C. tallies 50 LNG units; Bison Transport of Winnipeg has 15 dedicated tractors on its LCV run between Calgary and Edmonton.

As with any technological transition, these initiatives have not been without their start-up problems. One issue is limited range. Bison’s LNG tractors have struggled, at times, to make the 600 km round trip between Calgary and Edmonton.
“We know first hand about the limitations of LNG because we can’t carry enough fuel for long distance applications,” says Mark Irwin, director of maintenance for Bison’s eastern region. “The infrastructure’s not there to support long haul operations, though I understand it’s improving.”

As well, temperature variations and the laws of thermodynamics can play havoc with fuelling operations. LNG tanks are cryogenic and left sitting too long can vent a tank of fuel into the atmosphere within a few days. The specially-insulated tanks are also awkward and take up a lot of frame space.

Irwin reports “mixed results” from Bison’s LNG fleet. The company was expecting a two-year payback on its investment, but maintenance issues have arisen more frequently than expected. The trucks are getting about 6 mpg,” he says. “It would be cost-effective if we could get them closer to 9 mpg.”

Groupe Robert’s LNG Peterbilt with Westport’s HPDI 15L engine

Groupe Robert jumped into the LNG program with both feet and was able to get the Quebec government to help subsidize the conversion with a grant and a tax break. But the start-up costs are huge. With no infrastructure in place, Robert constructed two LNG fuelling stations at its terminals in Mississauga, Ont., and Boucherville, Que., at a cost of about $2 million each. The tractors themselves are expensive—almost twice the price of contemporary diesel-driven units.

Robert’s technical director and manager of its LNG program, Yves Maurais, expects a payback period of three to 3.5 years. “I think the program has been a success, but there have been a lot of hurdles,” he says. Overall mileage for the LNG fleet is about the same as the diesel tractors, according to Maurais, ranging from 6.7 to 7 mpg. But the Westport HPDI 15L engine, which uses diesel for ignition purposes, is thirstier than first imagined, consuming about 10% diesel fuel rather than the 5% that was expected.

Executives at Robert and Bison must have felt sucker-punched when Westport Innovations abruptly cancelled production of the above-mentioned 15L natural gas engine in August of 2013. Companies that had bought into the LNG program no longer had an engine supplier for their LCV fleets. The only other option, the Westport-Cummins 12L engine, doesn’t put out enough horsepower or torque for LCV applications. LNG proponents suffered another blow in January 2014 when Cummins announced that it was putting the development of its own 15L natural gas engine on hold.

Westport is now working on integrating its high-pressure direct injection (HPDI) system with other OEMs, and is collaborating with Volvo on a new 13L LNG engine that is eagerly awaited by alternate-fuel enthusiasts. But difficulties can be expected when committing to new technology. R&D is expensive and some of it would probably not happen without government grants or subsidies. Westport itself came about as a spin-off from research done at the University of British Columbia.

“Big players never pay for technology in this industry. Rather, they want to invest in something that is similar to existing products but marginally better. So pitching to these big diesel engine manufacturers like Cummins and Caterpillar to adopt a totally new technology was a challenging and somewhat futile task.”
~ David Demers, Westport Innovations

Legions of start-up enterprises come and go with the introduction of each new technological trend, so those carriers blazing an innovative trail have to be agile and resilient. For a brief while Azure Dynamics was a major supplier of electric and hybrid electric technology, and was carrying the banner for what was to be the game-changing all-electric Ford Transit. It also developed and packaged Purolator’s fleet of 400 hybrid-electric vehicles, the same trucks you see on the streets of most Canadian cities every day.

So what do you do when your supplier of new tech goes bust, as happened to Azure in 2012? Serge Viola, Purolator’s National Fleet Director, wasn’t completely unprepared. “We had a pretty good parts inventory, and there are a lot of parts we can rebuild. We’re looking at other suppliers, and we’re even looking at working with the Tesla people for batteries,” he says.

No doubt, alternative fuels, hybridization and fuel cells will be driving motor transportation in the future, but what will Class 8 truck engines look like in 2025? Bison’s Mark Irwin thinks that a large-scale move to LNG engines might occur sooner than that. “I was at a conference where a speaker from Exxon suggested that the tipping point will be somewhere around 18%. That’s when there are enough users going over to make the infrastructure worthwhile” he says. Irwin suggests that the situation is analogous to when trucking switched over to diesel from gasoline decades ago. The first diesels were underpowered and distrusted. Fleet owners clung to their gasoline-powered tractors as long as they could.

Viola thinks there will be more alternative-fuelled trucks in ten years, but diesel will still be the mainstay. “You’re going to see the diesel engines getting cleaner and cleaner and more efficient. And electric motors are going to play a big part, running all the accessories. But I don’t think you’re going to see an all-electric highway tractor for a long time—they’re too heavy. Maybe for city and regional work.”

Wade Long, director of product marketing for Volvo Trucks, also thinks that diesel fuel will continue to be the propellant of choice for most truckers. “Alternative fuels have commanded significant attention in recent years,” he says, “but we believe diesel will remain the most prominent fuel for heavy-duty trucks for the foreseeable future.
Cory Shumaker, chief electrical engineer for Vision Motor Corporation of Long Beach, California, takes a different perspective. His company is engaged in developing demonstration hydrogen fuel cell/electric Class 8 tractors for a speciality niche—doing short run drayage work between the docks, nearby distribution centres and railyards at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

The tractor is a little heavy at almost 20,000 lbs. but has no problem grossing 80,000 lbs. The all-electric truck sits in a Freightliner glider kit and chassis, but Shumaker insists his company is “chassis-agnostic” and can work with any make or model. Four 5.6 kg hydrogen tanks of gaseous hydrogen hold the fuel source, which Shumaker says should be good for 200 miles per eight-hour shift, with the driver refuelling at the end of each shift.

As expected the truck is incredibly quiet and needs no transmission. Power is provided directly to the rear differential by a drive shaft through a 320 Kw (430 hp) Siemens electric motor. The truck is expensive (around $300,000) but Shumaker believes the price will come down as production begins. “We found a manufacturer that basically cut the price of fuel cells in half and we think they’ll continue to come down” he says.

But how soon before we see an all-electric highway tractor? “Not long at all,” says Shumaker. “You need about a 130 Kw fuel cell to run long haul down the road and we’re not that far from it now. We really think this is the way of the future.”

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