Trade shows are an excellent place to get a sense of where trucking is headed, be it on a local, national, international or global scale. And that’s certainly true for an important show like the Advanced Clean Transportation Expo (ACT Expo), which attracts exhibitors and attendees from around the globe, eager to showcase and see the latest in advanced fuel, powertrain and commercial vehicle technology.
ACT Expo 2022 ran from May 9 to May 12 in Long Beach, California. And several new themes emerged during its run, which I think strongly indicate where the next round of alternative fuel/powertrain technology is headed in trucking’s quest to achieve zero net carbon emissions by 2050. Here are my five main take-aways from ACT Expo 2022.
1. Don’t count the internal combustion engine out, yet.
If there was an overarching theme at ACT Expo this year, it was – weirdly enough – the reemergence of the humble (and lately vilified) internal combustion engine as a player on the alternative fuel stage.
A new generation of fuel management systems has suddenly given OEMs, suppliers and fleets a new reason to reconsider tried-and-true ICE technology. These new fuel management systems are allowing OEs to develop “fuel agnostic” engine platforms that can burn any fuel in a compression-ignited system – just like diesel.
Cummins arguably made the biggest product splash at the show with its new X15H, 15-liter hydrogen engine. The engine can burn either natural gas or hydrogen simply by changing the head out. The lower engine components remain unchanged, regardless of the fuel being used. The engine is slated to enter full production in 2027.
Cummins officials noted that the engine has already delivered impressive early results, achieving production power and torque targets (over 810 ft-lbs torque and 290 hp from the company’s medium-duty engine).
ClearFlame showcased its engine modification technology, which enables existing heavy-duty engines to run on a range of renewable fuels in place of diesel fuel. Through better thermal management, ClearFlame's tech enables these alternative liquid fuels to behave like diesel fuel, with no loss of efficiency or power. For their first trucks, they've chosen ethanol based on its lower emissions, lower cost, and widespread availability.
2. A more somber mood takes hold.
ACT Expo 2022 seemed to have a more serious tone to it, compared to the almost giddy atmosphere that has permeated the show over the past couple of years. With new battery-electric vehicles finally ready to enter into production, and other developing alternative fuel technologies, such as hydrogen fuel cells, proceeding at a fast clip, the mood at the show seemed more focused on the challenges of delivering vehicles and helping fleets put them to work in real-world operations around the country.
As was the case last year, there was a continued emphasis on the lagging infrastructure component for both electric vehicles and zero-emission fuels such as natural gas and hydrogen.
Moreover, several industry speakers, notably Cummins CEO Tom Linebarger, warned attendees that in reality, the need was to create and/or upgrade multiple infrastructures to support multiple fuels and powertrain technologies – an undertaking, he cautioned, that will cost multiple trillions of dollars to accomplish.
3. Navistar intends to be an alt fuel/BEV player.
Just a year after its acquisition by VW’s Traton Truck Group, Navistar’s new CEO, Mathias Carlbaum took the stage as keynote speaker on ACT Expo’s second day, with full-throated support for trucking’s path to net zero by 2050. He warned attendees that – despite its incredible successes with recent new technologies – the North American trucking industry is still not doing enough to meet the arduous emissions targets ahead.
Later, in a one-on-one conversation with HDT, Carlbaum noted that soon, the latest European technology from Traton – and most importantly, Scania – would begin appearing on Navistar trucks as part of an aggressive program to provide competitive BEVs and alt-fuel trucks to North America. It’s an all-new stance from Navistar. And it will be fascinating to see how this new infusion of European cash and technology will transform the OEM in the future.
4. Autonomous is part of the net-zero solution.
Much of the conversation around autonomous truck technology to date has focused on the safety and efficiency gains these vehicle control systems seem poised to deliver. However, it seems increasingly clear that OEMs and fleets alike are starting to view autonomous technology as a vital component for reaching sustainability goals and reducing carbon footprints.
Plus offered me a behind-the-steering-wheel drive in a Peterbilt Model 579 on the crowded freeways around Long Beach. And during the drive Plus engineers stressed the fact that the autonomous control system, dubbed PlusDrive, is constantly seeking to optimize fuel economy in all traffic situations. Plus says PlusDrive will deliver fleets a 10% boost in fuel economy right out of the box.
Another hint concerning the autonomous piece of the net zero equation came during a panel discussion on fleet sustainability goals, when Matt McLelland, vice president of sustainability and innovation for Covenant Logistics, told attendees that the carrier has plans to have a “certain percentage” of autonomous trucks in the near future as part of its long-term strategy to meet sustainability goals and reduce carbon emissions.
5. Trucking has to do more.
Last year at ACT Expo, Volvo Trucks North America CEO Peter Voorhoeve was a lone voice in the sea of giddiness, warning attendees that the trucking industry could not yet afford to step back and pat itself on the back, celebrating the incredible zero-emissions and alternative fuel progress it has made over the last decade or so. There was still a long way to go to net zero in 2050, he cautioned. And there is still a lot of work left to do.
This year, Voorhoeve returned to ACT Expo and expanded on that message. But this time, he was not alone. As noted, Navistar CEO Mathias Carlbaum delivered a similar message to attendees, as did Cummins CEO Tom Linebarger during his own speech.
All three CEOs stressed a similar theme, warning the trucking industry that much work remained, new technologies still have to be both perfected and – in some instances – invented. And the infrastructure challenge seems to only look bigger and more complex the more experts study it.
Net zero by 2050 is very much an attainable goal, all three men agreed. But it is far, far too early for trucking to take its collective foot off the throttle in the race to get there.
[Editor's Note: This article was corrected on May 26 at 10 a.m. CT to correct the name of the PlusDrive system.]
[Editor's Note: This article was corrected on July 11 at 1 p.m. CT to correct a description of what ClearFlame's engine modification technology does. It does not burn hydrogen using a pilot shot of diesel, as previously stated, but rather enables exisiting engines to run on renewable fuels in place of diesel fuel.]
[Editor's Note: This article was correction July 18 at 5 p.m. CT to correct the type of technology ClearFlame showcased at ACT Expo.]