Brian Antonellis worked in shop and asset management for private fleets for two decades before landing at Fleet Advantage as a consultant, and he remembers when natural gas was “the” alternative fuel. To make sure they could keep those trucks up and running required training technicians, explosion-proofing shops, and working with local municipalities and fire authorities.
“At the time, we thought natural gas was going to be there forever,” he says. “So we made that investment.”
A decade ago, we ran a three-part series in HDT with tips for fleets on adopting natural gas as a truck fuel. Just four years ago we ran a feature, “Natural Gas is Still the King of Alternative Fuels.” But as battery-electric trucks have exploded on to the scene in the past few years and global pressure mounts to cut fossil fuel use, natural gas is no longer the alternative-fuel darling of the industry.
When Antonellis works with fleets today, he’s a bit more cautious when it comes to the newest zero-emissions vehicles. “On this first round of technology, it’s been challenging to even understand, is this going to be the technology that’s there in five years?” he says.
As Bob Stanton, a fleet operations consultant, recently asked in an article for our sister brand Charged Fleet: What if battery-electric vehicles are just the “flavor of the decade” — much like natural gas ended up being?
Let’s face it, there are still many questions about the ability to scale electric vehicles, including battery weight, range, where raw materials such as lithium will come from, and the amount of (and source of) electric power that will be required to charge so many EVs. And over the past decade, promising commercial BEV start-ups such as Smith Electric Vehicles, Chanje, and Electric Last Mile Solutions (ELMS) have folded. We’re still waiting for the battery-electric Tesla Semi five years after Elon Musk introduced it in a flashy launch event.
Keith Wilson, CEO of regional less-than-truckload carrier Titan Freight Systems, is excited about electric trucks and is making long-term investments into charging infrastructure. But he’s also a big fan of renewable diesel. He believes more states should adopt low-carbon-fuel programs like California’s and Oregon’s in order to speed the fuel’s availability to the rest of the country.
As Stanton pointed out in his piece, “In spite of the hype, legislative impetus, and even the seemingly explosive growth of euphoric EV consumers, many alternatives are under furious development using either current or developing technologies; many of which include today’s venerable [internal combustion engines] as their preferred platform.”
Some of the options now available or under development include renewable diesel and natural gas, hybrids, and for medium-duty, high-octane gasoline and propane. Several companies are working on fuels created from capturing CO2. Diesel engines themselves are getting ever more fuel efficient, and new ICE technologies such as opposed-piston engines and cylinder deactivation are being tested.
Perhaps for long-haul trucking, the answer will be hydrogen — either used as an alternative fuel in internal-combustion engines, as Cummins is developing, or in fuel-cell-electric trucks being tested by Daimler Truck and others. Many states are scrambling to become hydrogen hubs as federal infrastructure funding becomes available for that purpose. Oklahoma, a state at the epicenter of the oil industry, recently passed nine new laws creating a legal infrastructure for hydrogen fuel development, according to Stanton.
My goal here is not to discourage fleets from taking the first steps on the road to zero emissions. Far from it. But I’ve watched the ebb and flow of various alternative fuels and drivetrains for trucking over the past three decades. I’ve seen the wax and wane of biodiesel, battery-electric hybrids, hydraulic hybrids, and dimethyl ether (DME). I’ve seen EV start-ups come and go.
The road to zero emissions may yet have many detours and forks in the road. Fleets would be wise to do their homework and carefully evaluate which emissions-reducing strategies will work best for their operations. Electric trucks might not be the best, or only, answer to the question of how trucking cuts its carbon footprint and tailpipe emissions.
This editorial commentary first appeared in the September 2022 issue of Heavy Duty Trucking.