The View with Lou: It’s only natural

How will natural gas shape the long-haul trucking industry of the future? The answer to that question is less clear following the recent Mid-America Trucking Show.

Natural gas has been riding a wave for the past two years as the leading alternative to diesel for several good reasons: It’s a mature technology; the engine shares 80% of its componentry with its diesel counterpart; there’s a proven return on investment on high-mileage applications; and vast shale formations in North America are keeping price well below that of diesel. At the Green Truck Summit last month fuel experts were forecasting that natural gas trucks could soon comprise 10% of the Class 8 truck market. The only point of contention was just how long it would take to get there, with some suggesting it could be as quickly as three years.

The waste and refuse sector has been the quickest to adopt natural gas vehicles in Canada. There are now more than 300 such trucks in use compared to just a handful a few years ago. The highway tractor segment is the second fastest growing in the country with more than 200 highway tractors operating in four provinces.

But the head of Daimler’s global truck and bus business poured some cold water on that optimistic thinking with his comments to business leaders gathered for the annual Heavy Duty Manufacturers Association breakfast at the Mid-America Trucking Show.

“My alternative fuel is diesel and we will continue to perfect that technology,” Dr. Wolfgang Bernhard, head of the market share leader in North America, told the HDMA, adding that the hype surrounding natural gas as a fuel alternative for trucking is gone and realism is setting in. That realism includes an infrastructure where there are still 200 times more diesel stations than natural gas stations. Bernhard added that long-haul applications for natural gas are not currently viable. It was just a couple of months ago that Cummins decided to put development of its 15L natural gas engine on hold, leaving the market devoid of a 15-litre product after Westport announced last year it was discontinuing production of its own 15L GX engine. That’s certainly not good news for fleets looking to switch to natural gas for heavy-haul applications.

The day before Bernhard addressed the HDMA, Martin Daum, president and CEO of Daimler North America, said natural gas seems a more viable option for local delivery applications. Yet medium-duty truck operators may not run enough miles to deliver a sufficient return on the investment when one considers the initial cost of moving to a natural gas engine.

Is there then a future for natural gas in the trucking industry?

Dr. Bernhard himself acknowledged that although “the buzz was bigger last year”, natural gas is not going away. Canada’s heavy duty natural gas pioneers such as Groupe Robert and Vedder Transportation Group are continuing on despite the disappointing news about the 15L natural gas engine. Vedder believes a 13L engine can fit many of the fleet’s current needs and is looking to extend the life of its 50 existing Westport GX 15L engines until a suitable replacement becomes available. Groupe Robert will also be making due with the 13L alternative while pressing Ottawa to reduce investment costs by lifting some of the emissions requirements on LNG-fuelled trucks so that they no longer require SCR and DPF systems.

What may also determine how natural gas will shape the trucking industry is the commitment from Ottawa (and more importantly Washington) to continue to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Natural gas tractors on a well-to-wheel basis, compared to diesel powered trucks, generate 15-25% fewer emissions. A natural gas highway tractor that operates 200,000 km per year will produce 65 tonnes less carbon with natural gas than it does with diesel.

A natural gas fleet could make it easier for carriers working with large environmentally conscious shippers to secure their business. And that too will color the way carriers consider the natural gas option

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With more than 25 years of experience reporting on transportation issues, Lou is one of the more recognizable personalities in the industry. An award-winning writer well known for his insightful writing and meticulous market analysis, he is a leading authority on industry trends and statistics.

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