Truck of the future will still run on diesel: panel

by Steve Bouchard

CTEA panel
A panel at the Canadian Transportation Equipment Association (CTEA) sees a role for diesel — and other fuels — in future trucks.

MONT TREMBLANT, Que. —  The truck of the future will run on diesel as well as a variety of other energy sources, depending on their application, a panel told attendees at the Canadian Transportation Equipment Association (CTEA) annual convention.

“Don’t hold your breath about the end of diesel,” said Rolf Lockwood, Today’s Trucking’s editor at large. “There is no compelling operational reason to get out of diesel at this point. It’s efficient, we know what it is, and we know it works. In 40 years, we will still be using diesel, but maybe not to the full extent we do today.”

Still, many other options are available to the trucking industry now or soon — including natural gas, battery- and hydrogen-electric, propane, and all manner of biomass resources.

“Biomass is one of the coolest options in the vocational world as waste can be used at landfill sites to generate methane for fueling refuse trucks,” said Lockwood. “It can be a circular loop.”

It’s a process EBI Energie established a few years ago in Berthierville, Que. The company’s gas is distributed through the Energir (formerly Gaz Metro) network in a fully closed loop.

Jim Park, equipment editor at Today’s Trucking and Heavy Duty Trucking magazines, added that those opposed to diesel fuel tend to look at trucking as a monolithic entity. “Trucking is such a diverse industry,” he said. “Each segment is ideally suited to an alternative type of fuel, except for the longhaul sector, where diesel will remain the most efficient fuel to burn.”

The reasons for that are numerous: diesel is portable, light, it has an incredible energy density, and it’s cleaner than ever.

”It’s often said by the engine makers that the air coming out of an exhaust stack is cleaner than the air that’s going in. I don’t think this is an exaggeration,” said Park.

Many improvements have been made to diesel engines and exhaust-treatment systems efficiency. Park recalled that heavy trucks used to get 5 or 6 mpg 15 years ago, while it’s common to get 10 mpg today, some fleets pushing things up to 11 and 12 mpg. “The technology is there and if you consider the emissions coming out of a 10 mpg truck, we are infinitely cleaner than we have ever been.”

There are other sectors in trucking where you can or will be able to use battery- or hydrogen-electric, natural gas, or many other types of alternative energy, meaning that diesel for longhaul use might even eventually become a boutique fuel.

Applications will dictate the type of energy used to move heavy trucks. Methane can work very well with a fleet of garbage trucks because it can be made right at the landfill site, for example, while biodiesel would be a natural fit with trucks used in agriculture, and battery-electric power is a good fit with local or regional trucks. Low-emission propane is used in a lot of school buses across the continent, and it could fuel far more light- and medium-duty local trucks than it presently does.

Geography will also influence the type of energy employed, according to Lockwood. “For a fleet of five or six trucks as part of a farm operation on the Prairies, some form of biodiesel is a natural because it can be produced locally. It’s the same everywhere. For a Bulgarian company, for instance, propane may be the more obvious choice because over there it’s plentiful and dirt cheap with an established infrastructure. It all depends on local resources.”

“Electricity produced from coal in Indiana can’t make a good case, but hydroelectricity from Quebec certainly can,” said Park. We also need to think about the infrastructure required to supply the power.

“Making power to recharge a fleet of 15 trucks is one thing, but when all the fleets are electric, how will you produce enough?” asked Park. “It will take time and we need to be patient.”

Yves Provencher, senior manager – business development at  Lion Electric, a maker of school buses and the Class 8 all-electric Lion8 truck, agreed that a cocktail of various fuels will be available to the industry.

“Our challenge is to make sure to use the right fuel at the right place. I don’t see electricity going longhaul for a long time. Diesel is hard to beat in that segment,” he said. “But there will be some niches for electric trucks, and that’s the target we are looking at right now: short-range local and regional distribution. Eventually, batteries will become lighter and cheaper and will offer a better range but, for now, we are looking more at local and regional movements.”

Electric power offers some very interesting benefits to fleets.

“We don’t have a DPF [diesel particulate filter]. I get a lot of attention when I mention that because it’s a main issue for many people,” Provencher said. “An electric truck is a very simple vehicle. It has a lot fewer components. An electric motor has 20 parts, no friction parts, no transmission, no exhaust system. It will be much cheaper to maintain.”

The batteries remain the biggest challenge with electric trucks. What role might they play after 10 years of service in a truck.

“Maybe they won’t be good enough to power a truck, but they can be OK to store energy,” suggested Provencher.

Possibilities are numerous with electricity, as Provencher illustrated with the vehicle-to-grid application example. Lion is looking at this with around 250 electric school buses already in use, which would allow charging the vehicles while they’re idle through the summer, and sending that power to the larger grid.

Autonomous vehicles

The panel could not end a discussion on trucks of the future without talking about autonomy.

Level 2 autonomy is available now, said Lockwood, who thinks we will skip Level 3, “and then it will take a lot of time to get to the next level.” Complete autonomy won’t happen tomorrow, he said. “We are so far away from making that work properly that it just won’t happen any time soon. We have a lot of legislative, insurance, and social issues to go through.”

Park also thinks there is a long way to go.

“I have driven Level 2 trucks, and the technology that I drove was not always able to maintain a standard freeway curve [without manual steering input]. God forbid I should get out of the driver seat to get something in the microwave,” he said.

“As with Tesla, people will do dumb things with the technology,” he added, referring to collisions that have occurred as users left much of the driving to the cars themselves. “Is it up to the task yet? No, I don’t think so, And the more I hear about those start-up companies doing research projects on public highways, I worry. Those start-ups don’t know better than the big OEMs, which are mostly holding back.”

Provencher sees the best opportunities with platooning, especially on resource roads in the forestry industry, where it’s very difficult to find drivers.

“We have more control on these roads because they are private roads. I see platooning happening more in those situations. And that might happen much faster than Level 5 autonomy.“

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