Clean Tech Comes In All Shapes and Sizes, Including Really Big Trucks

, , senior vehicles analyst | October 1, 2014, 1:02 pm EDT
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As we look at implementing new standards for heavy duty vehicles, it’s important to understand what technologies are out there on the horizon. To get a glimpse at who’s doing what and why, last week I attended the High-efficiency Truck Users’ Forum (HTUF) 2014 conference at Argonne National Lab. Suppliers, manufacturers, researchers, and fleet operators all got together to discuss the current technologies, those available in the foreseeable future, and the challenges and motivations for their adoption.

Looking forward to the need of a second round of medium- and heavy-duty vehicle standards, Karl Simon of the EPA got things started with a great quote from Franklin D. Roosevelt:

The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something. The millions who are in want will not stand by silently forever while the things to satisfy their needs are within easy reach.

What is within easy reach

On the afternoon of the first day, HTUF held its technology showcase. One of the things that surprised me the most was the diversity of really advanced options available today. These ranged in size from a plug-in hybrid van to a fully electric garbage truck and in strategies from plug-in hybrids to battery-electrics to electric hybrids to hydraulic hybrids, with series configurations, parallel configurations, and electric power take-off for worksite applications.

There are so many technologies out there, and one of the major issues is simply how to find the right applications and the right way to scale. All of these companies came together in one parking lot, bringing a variety of trucks that show there doesn’t have to be a “one size fits all” solution to get substantial reductions in oil use and emissions.

The HTUF 2014 Technology Showcase featured 10 medium- and heavy-duty vehicles from 10 different companies, all employing their own unique technology solution.

The HTUF 2014 Technology Showcase featured 10 medium- and heavy-duty vehicles from 10 different companies, all employing their own unique technology solution.

In addition to the sheer diversity of vehicles, one of the other things that was so impressive about this ride’n’drive was just how quiet these technologies are. When you are considering applications like a garbage truck, this enables new benefits that move beyond fuel costs, such as the ability to increase early morning operations without worrying about disturbing neighborhoods with idling and high-speed whine as you turn on the compaction cycle. It was phenomenal to see a behemoth like this whiz by with so little noise.

It’s also incredible just how much power some of these electric motors provide, enabling the silent but instantaneous torque capable of rapidly moving these huge vehicles.

What we could see in the future

Argonne’s Dual-Fuel Engine, a collaboration with Navistar that combines the efficiency of diesel fuel with the low-soot combustion of gasoline.

Argonne’s Dual-Fuel Engine, a collaboration with Navistar that combines the efficiency of diesel fuel with the low-soot combustion of gasoline.

Because the conference was being held at the Argonne National Laboratory, there was some discussion of ideas beyond what can be purchased today. As part of a tour of the Transportation Technology R&D Center, we looked at two different engine projects that offered radical new approaches in engine design.

The first looked at replacing spark plugs on a natural gas engine with lasers…yes, LASERS! Laser ignition of the natural gas allows for “lean burn” operation, which significantly reduces criteria pollutants but is not possible with today’s spark plugs.

The second project was a dual-fuel engine that combines diesel operation with port-injected gasoline to meld the efficient combustion of a compression-ignited diesel engine with the oxygenation benefit of gasoline to reduce soot.

Also discussed as part of the HTUF 2014 meeting was Walmart’s Advanced Vehicle Experience, which replaces the combustion engine entirely with a turbine generator that acts as a range-extending hybrid. While none of these technologies are likely to be widely deployed any time soon, the research also provides critical info along the way to help conventional vehicles get more and more efficient.

Why we aren’t seeing more

One of the issues raised with some of these advanced vehicles, however, are the barriers and challenges they face in the marketplace. There was a lot of discussion around government incentives, which can help mitigate some of these barriers and have historically received significant support. However, much of the discussion was focused on novel financing strategies that more accurately reflect the operational benefits from these vehicles, since often the higher upfront cost is considered when financing a vehicle but not any of the fuel savings which pay for the technology (and then some).

One fleet operator had a particularly poignant quote on incentives: “We do not put government incentives into the equation any longer because it can be gone tomorrow. Incentives helped get us to the dance, but it can’t keep us dancing—that has to be the cost/benefit equation.” Ultimately, if you can keep dancing, that feeds into the positive success stories that bring more people to the dance floor and help bring down the barriers to entry for everyone.

Sales volume and hands-on experience can be the best solutions to some of these challenges, but that takes time, time which is becoming more and more a luxury we don’t really have. The second phase of medium- and heavy-duty standards are going to be an important step forward to ensure that we continue to move these and other fuel-saving technologies into the marketplace. But at HTUF 2014, it was great to see the “bold, persistent experimentation” that is necessary to achieve even larger reductions in fuel use and global warming emissions from our medium- and heavy-duty fleet.

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