Natural gas. Biodiesel. Algae-based diesel. Hydrogen fuel cells. Dimethyl-ether. Hybrids. There's a virtual smorgasbord of potential fuel sources or supplements for truck and engine makers to choose from. The critical question becomes which one, or which combinations of fuel sources, represent the best path forward.
While natural gas is now enjoying significant uptake in trucking, it was considered a fringe fuel just a few years ago. There were many barriers to natural gas, at first, with conversion costs and availability topping the list. With those two largely dismissed, and many of the other hurdles disappearing as we move forward, is natural gas a solid prospect for a future fuel? It had better be, given the investment industry has made in the fuel so far.
People like Mark Lampert, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Daimler Trucks North America, need to know the future of fuel. They can't simply drop one technology in favor or another at the drop of a hat.
"It’s a very interesting time in engine technologies," Lampert tells Heavy Duty Trucking. "Without a doubt the most discussed topic in the last 12 to 18 months in North America has been the emergence of natural gas. How big is it, what’s the technology path we’re going to use, and where is it most applicable?"
Despite all the recent hype over natural gas, it still represents less than 1% of the total Class 8 marketplace in North America right now.
"You would think that by the level of conversation and interest driven by the shippers to the carriers and ultimately back to us, the manufacturers, [that] it's 25% or 30% of the marketplace," Lampert says. "To put it in perspective, if [natural gas] increases five or six fold, we’re still talking about a single-digit market share player. We don’t see significantly aggressive adoption of natural gas, but we see steady increases with it."
Lampert says Freightliner's natural gas efforts will concentrate on regional distribution and general day-cab applications.
"Now that the infrastructure is developing and we’ve gone from 9-liter engines to 12-liter engines, it has opened up new applications," he says. "There is still a lot of work that needs to be done, and will be done, but I think it will be a key subject of discussion in the foreseeable future."
Is there a natural gas version of the Detroit Diesel DD series engines in the works? Lampert says no. Cummins Westport is currently providing the natural gas engines for Freightliner trucks.
"We’re very pleased with the development that our engine partner Cummins has, and with a technology that is 1%, we’re not going to spend our dollars there right now," he says. "As we take a look at the different alternatives out there, we’re most comfortable with Cummins and we think that’s where the industry will be. It’s the technology path that we’re most comfortable with."
Diesel, Lampert says, will continue to be the fuel of choice for trucking. "Diesel is absolutely not going away," he says. "[On] the diesel side, we feel that there are some key things we can do to further increase fuel efficiency and our leadership position in diesel engine technology.
"At this point in time we’re concentrating on diesel and natural gas because clean diesel is here to stay for a long time," Lampert says. "As for some of the other alternatives, we do some electric vehicles, we do some hybrids, but to put it in perspective, that’s not even a fraction of what natural gas is. There’s no leverage or scale for those technologies."
To put the emergence of natural gas and other potential alternatives to diesel, Lampert says he recently read an article about Saudi Arabia talking about the potential impact of their economy based upon North American energy and dependence on foreign oil. If the Saudis are looking over their shoulder, you can bet there's a future to alternative fuels.