Over the past 20 years, truck builders have labored mightily and with great success to make trucks more fuel efficient, safe and environmentally friendly. But the gains they have made are puny compared to what is to come, if an ambitious government program is successful.
While engineers and designers fight for tenths of a mile per gallon, a group of government agencies and contractors say it’s possible to double fuel mileage, with corresponding improvements in emissions and performance, in the not too distant future.
They are looking at a variety of technologies, from aerodynamic improvements to a hybrid diesel-electric power plant and, eventually, hydrogen fuel cells, to make these gains in some kinds of trucking operations.
The 21st Century Truck Initiative, as the program is called, brings together the technology efforts of several large government bureaucracies that had been pursuing their own agendas without much coordination.
Under the leadership of the National Automotive Center, which is the U.S. Army’s vehicle research organization, truck research and development by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Departments of Transportation, Energy and Defense is being focused on a unified goal.
President Clinton is reported to be sizing up the program for top-drawer political treatment. Official introduction of the program may come in Clinton’s State of the Union Address in January, according to an article in the National Journal.
Under the program, a prototype hybrid truck is being built by Volvo Trucks North America and Lockheed Martin Control Systems. Lockheed is installing a hybrid drive on a Volvo VNL64 for delivery to the Army’s Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command this month.
Fuel economy is expected to be “significantly better,” and emissions will be 50% better than a pure diesel truck, Lockheed said. Other advantages: no transmission and clutch to maintain; the engine will need less maintenance; and the electric motor can be used to help stop the truck, reducing brake wear and generating more electricity for storage in the batteries.
The vehicle will comply with the performance parameters of the Army's M915 line haul vehicle. Improvements will include greater acceleration and shift-free power from standstill to top speed.
The truck is scheduled to be on display at the Mid-America Trucking Show next spring.
It will be more expensive than its ordinary counterpart, mainly due to the electric generator and batteries. It also will weigh more, which will limit its applications. But the aim is to build a truck that will break even on cost within 24 months.