Trucking Facing Bumpy Road to Alternative Fuel Power

In a world where EV passenger cars are increasingly common, we still aren’t seeing many heavy trucks powered by anything but good old-fashioned diesel.

This leaves an impression that the development of alt-fuel large commercial vehicles is lagging badly behind that of the passenger market. That’s largely true but it isn’t for lack of demand. “Actually, in the US, the demand for natural gas semi trucks has increased by 18% over the last year,” said Eric Bippus, senior vice-president of Hexagon Agility, an alternative fuel components supplier to vehicle fleets. “Furthermore, the volatility of diesel prices is at a record high, driving fleets to seek alternative fuel solutions to control fuel expenditures.”

Also, there are more than a few solutions to choose from. There’s renewable natural gas (RNG) and its sibling compressed natural gas (CNG), fuel cell-powered engines and, of course, BEVs. The passenger market’s alt-fuel solution of choice is the latter, so that’s the next-generation system that gets much of the press when it comes to current truck development. What also helps is that the latest big commercial vehicle to roll out of the factory and into a fleet, the Tesla Semi, is a BEV. Others will hit the road before long. For example Volvo is plugging into the segment in a big way, having recently begun series production of BEV versions of its heavy-duty trucks.

Yet, the jury’s not yet out on which earth-friendly technology will be the main one to usurp diesel. Volvo may be putting plenty of chips on BEVs but it’s hedging that bet by collaborating with Daimler Truck and green vehicle tech specialist Mahle in a joint venture aimed at developing hydrogen fuel cell technology. Meanwhile, Cummins recently unveiled an innovative shared engine platform that in addition to diesel, allows for natural gas, or hydrogen as a fuel depending on customer preference.

Diesel is proving to be a hard act to follow, meanwhile. Patrick Couch, senior vice-president of clean transportation and energy consultancy Gladstein, Neandross & Associates (GNA), said: “The biggest technical challenge has been to match the operating range of diesel with alt-fuels. Weight and space claims on the vehicle for the fuel/energy storage system limit capacity and increase vehicle costs. CNG has arguably been the most successful in this regard but local haul (up to around 200 miles/day) is now squarely in the duty cycle of BEVs.”

However, there’s another catch limiting the widespread, quick and thorough takeover of BEVs in heavy truck fleets. According to Scott Fisher, senior vice-president of charging station infrastructure specialist Voltera: “Fleets are concerned about the cost and complexity of electrification and that’s a big factor in the pace of adoption.” Companies like his assist fleet managers with adapting alt-fuel technologies but the client must have the budget, time and the willingness to endure what can be a wrenching transition.

Additionally, “Development lags can be attributed, in part, to limited resources,” said Scott Kunes of US dealership network Kunes Auto Group. “There are limited materials to make batteries to power millions of next-generation semis and we lack the proper infrastructure to sustain the adoption. It’s also a catch-22: fleet owners aren’t ready to invest in [B]EV fleets until costs come down, but manufacturers can’t lower costs without significantly ramping up production.”

Since nearly every clean technology that powers a big machine involves big costs thanks to the aforementioned factors, fleet operators are starved for some outside financial help. “In most cases, zero-emission semis currently only pencil out financially when combined with substantial incentives for vehicles and infrastructure,” said Couch.

Happily for next-generation truck technology developers, many of which are based in the US, that country’s government is about to lend a hand. The Inflation Reduction Act signed into law by President Biden in September features a raft of clean energy-pushing measures, not least of which are tax breaks for owning vehicles running on electricity. Owners of BEVs will receive a tax credit of up to $7,500 for a period of ten years.

That’s helpful but four-figure incentives won’t be enough to shift a majority of truck fleets from diesel to the next-generation engine technology of their choice. Those costs need to come down organically, through a combination of production scale and technological innovation. Meanwhile, diesel will continue to power heavy vehicles even though it remains stubbornly pricey.

That longstanding, go-to fuel has plenty of advocates, meanwhile. The Diesel Technology Forum’s executive director Allen Schaeffer pointed out that its “unique combination of features have yet to be matched by any other fuel or technology. It is a proven, most energy-efficient engine, with a widely available fueling, parts, and servicing network that reaches every corner of the US”.

As inevitably as taxes and death, the alt-fuel revolution will eventually sweep through even the smallest heavy truck fleets. That said, given the current state of development, we shouldn’t expect to see trucking BEVs and other relatively green big rigs cruising along with us on the road in the immediate future.


2 comments

  1. Avatar Jim Bonham 15th December 2022 @ 7:49 pm

    BEVs are unlikely to penetrate the heaviest classes of truck’s any time soon. Their batteries are too heavy for longer distances. Payloads must be reduced to compensate, thus hurting profits. Furthermore, long charging times with these larger batteries also increase downtime, also reducing profits. Synthetic, carbon-neutral “drop-in” fuels and hydrogen (fuel cells and, eventually, ICE) will very likely be the preferred fuels for the heaviest vehicles. They allow full payloads while providing longer ranges with quicker refueling and less downtime. BEVs cannot match that now and, likely, won’t be able to any time at all. If ever. Fleets won’t invest in BEV unless these things change.

  2. Avatar Eric Volkman 21st December 2022 @ 9:46 pm

    Those are excellent points, Jim, and collectively they present a real challenge for clean-tech companies looking to edge into the heavy truck space. I’m a bit more optimistic; I think the tech will get to the point where it isn’t as weighty, however this is still some distance away. Also, as a segment heavy trucks aren’t anywhere near as massive – therefore lucrative – as passenger vehicles.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *