Doing Without Diesel

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Claude Robert is one of the most savvy fleet operators in the land. He’s also a certified truck enthusiast, and mighty knowledgeable to boot. Not to mention being very keen to look at new technologies and always ready to try those that seem especially promising. So when Monsieur Robert says "Oui!" to some new techno-gambit, the rest of the industry would do well to take notice. It usually does.

We’re not talking about a mere gambit here, though. Rather, it’s a serious investment in probably 50 to 80 trucks in the first year of what looks like being a five-year plan to use liquefied natural gas (LNG) on two linehaul routes — Montreal/Quebec City and Montreal/Toronto.

Before we launch into that project, a question: why such interest in natural gas all of a sudden? It’s really coming on strong, so what gives?

The idea of converting heavy-duty diesel engines to run on natural gas is hardly new, and there are many thousands of them powering buses and garbage packers, for example, all around the world.

There are two imperatives here, neither of them new, but each of them freshly energized — one is an increasing desire by high-profile fleet operators to reduce emissions and demonstrate environmental responsibility, and the other is the extremely strong American wish to be free of the need to import oil.

There are those who foresee a world oil shortfall and prices skyrocketing within the decade, a view held by T. Boone Pickens, founder of leading natural gas supplier Clean Energy.

Speaking at a conference this past March, he noted that the U.S. imports 13 million barrels of oil a day out of the 21 million it uses. And five million of those daily barrels come from OPEC countries in the Middle East.

"If we go forward without an energy plan," he said, "we will be importing 75 percent of our oil in 10 years and paying $300 a barrel."

Each day, Pickens said, the world produces 85 million barrels of oil. The U.S. uses a quarter of that total while having only four percent of the population. "That is not sustainable," Pickens said. "We cannot continue to use that much oil."

He’s one of the strong arms behind a bill before the U.S. Congress that would offer a $65,000 tax credit for the purchase of natural-gas-powered trucks. 

His own goal — part of the so-called Pickens Plan — is to convert the eight million commercial trucks in the U.S. from diesel to natural gas power. And thus cut OPEC oil imports by half while saving fleet operators 30 to 50 percent on fuel costs.


Claude Robert is looking to put
at least 50 natural gas-powered trucks
into linehaul work on two Transport Robert routes.

The U.S. is actually self-sufficient, or nearly so, in natural gas.

Somewhat less compelling is its emissions advantage. Its proponents claim that it can reduce particulate and nitrogen oxide emissions by between 20 and 30 percent. But the Clean Technology Forum — a diesel manufacturer group — disputes that, saying that 2010 diesel engines produce almost no such emissions while improving truck fuel efficiency by four to six percent. Diesels are now on a par with natural gas, the group says.

The motivations are a little different in Canada, led here by a lower price for natural gas, which produces fuel economy approximately the same as diesel or perhaps three to four percent less, depending on application.


Groupe Robert is working on a deal with Gaz Metro, a major distributor of natural gas in Quebec, to put as many as 130 ­natural-gas-powered highway tractors on the road between now and 2015.

Wearing Robert Transport’s yellow-and-black colors, they would be among the first such trucks to be used in an over-the-road application anywhere — but not on a trial basis. They’ll be using a converted Cummins 15-litre ISX if the deal goes through, and Gaz Metro will install refuelling sites at Robert’s terminals in Boucherville, Que. and Toronto to start with.

At a recent conference on energy management, Robert’s Jean-Robert Lessard, vice president of marketing, offered a little detail on the project, inexplicably called ‘Blue Road’.

"The goal of the program is to find alternatives to diesel and to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 20 to 25 percent. Liquefied natural gas shows environmental and financial benefits. And its price is more stable than diesel," he said.

"To succeed with this program, it is essential to put together a credible partnership and a long-term operational structure that includes financial incentives from Gaz Metro] and the support of government," said Lessard. "We also need to make sure there is a tax balance between diesel and natural gas."

He meant that if governments tax LNG at the same level as diesel, some of the advantage is lost.

As it happens, there’s now a substantial break offered on the depreciation front. In its March budget, the Quebec government announced that the 40-percent depreciation rate applicable to commercial trucks or tractors would be increased to 60 percent for any new equipment acquired after March 31st, 2010. And fully 85 percent on NGVs. Other provinces have not, as of yet, matched that one.


There are two natural gas engines on offer for truck use at the moment, both from Vancouver’s Westport Innovations, one from Cummins Westport, its 50/50 joint venture with the Indiana engine-maker, and the other from another entity called Westport Power.

Challenger took LNG on a pretty serious test
run a few years ago, with good results.

Yes, it’s very confusing, so we’ll just refer to Westport from this point.

Another player will enter the fray some time soon, namely Navistar.

It’s signed a concept development agreement with Clean Air Power to develop the MaxxForce 13 engine to run on both natural
gas and clean diesel fuel via the company’s ‘Dual-Fuel’ combustion technology. The initial target would be the regional-haul tractor working within a 400-mile range.

At this point there are more than 25,000 Westport-powered NGVs around the world, so this is obviously not an untried motive-power option.

The company offers the 8.9-litre Westport ISL G motor that runs on either compressed natural gas (CNG) or liquefied natural gas (LNG), and the 15-litre Westport GX fuelled by LNG alone, the one Robert will be using. As you’ll have guessed, the former is based on the Cummins ISL diesel, the latter on the big Cummins ISX.

These natural gas engines use many of the same components as their diesel equivalents. They use spark ignition, of course, so differences are seen in the fuel system and the electronic control module (ECM). As well, the piston and ring pack, cylinder head and camshaft have also been optimized for natural gas use.

Performance is said to be very similar to a same-rating diesel, though spark ignition — instead of relentless compression explosions — makes a natural gas motor much quieter. Maintenance intervals and lifetime to rebuild are the same or similar to diesel. The engines are warranted by Cummins with the same basic coverage as diesel and can be serviced at any Cummins shop.

The ISL G is presently offered in many trucks and tractors, including models from Autocar, Freightliner, Kenworth, Mack, and Peterbilt.

It meets the 2010 EPA nitrogen-oxide emission standard of 0.2 gm/bhp-hr without needing serious exhaust aftertreatment, nor incremental cost. It meets California Air Resources Board (CARB) standards too, using straightforward exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) technology with a three-way catalyst. It comes in ratings from 250 to 320 hp.

The 15-litre Westport GX engine is newer but also approved by both EPA and CARB. Fuelled by LNG, it’s currently available in factory-assembled Kenworth T800 and Peterbilt 386, 387, and 367 models that are likely to see use in various applications from port drayage to refuse transfer and the like.

Buy one of these and you’ll get smallish tanks with fuel capacities ranging from 52 to 104 diesel-equivalent gallons, which will obviously determine the work they do. Westport says the GX will show "matching or better fuel efficiency" compared to diesel, depending on operation. Horse­power and torque remain the same.

The Westport GX is offered in four ratings, two of them with the Cummins SmartTorque spec. You can have 400 hp with 1450 lb ft of torque in the GX 400, or 1450-1650 lb ft in the GX400ST. The GX 450 gives you 450 hp with 1650 lb ft, and the ST version offers 1550-1750 lb ft.

There have been several trials using the early-generation Westport GX going back to 2000, Ontario’s Challenger Motor Freight having run a pretty serious one in 2006.

Five trucks completed a daily 300-to-500-mile round trip hauling loads of up to 140,000 lb, covering more than 450,000 miles in total along the Highway 401 corridor between Toronto and Michigan. Westport says the trial produced 97-percent vehicle availability and fuel consumption within 4 percent of diesel trucks used on the same routes.

For the most part all the experimenting has been in the vocational world with the smaller Westport ISL G. Garbage packers running on natural gas are increasingly common, and of course container-hauling daycabs in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach have been switching to the fuel in droves as a result of a mandate mixed with incentives.

One of the biggest ISL G users is Arizona-based refuse/recycling giant, Republic Services, which recently announced that 20 percent of the trucks it’s adding to the fleet this year are natural gas vehicles (NGVs). And that means 226 trucks, all Autocar garbage packers bound for the western U.S. They’ll be supported by the building of three new CNG fuelling stations by Clean Energy, the NG fuel provider headed by T. Boone Pickens.

The bottom line here, as Kenworth national sales manager Andy Douglas said at a recent conference, is that natural gas is now a mainstream product with rapidly growing popularity.

Cheaper than diesel while being almost as efficient, it allows the surprisingly high initial purchase price of an NGV — in the $50,000-plus range — to be written down fairly quickly.

And you can bet that Claude Robert wouldn’t be buying 50 of them if there weren’t some compelling reason. 

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

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