A "messy middle" period of new alternative-fuel technology trials has already begun, a new report says. In a couple of decades, fleets will be moving freight in a zero-emissions mode both profitably and productively, it predicts.
As trucking moves into a new future of fuels, fleet managers are being presented with a litany of new technologies to consider for their operations. And, as always, the North American Council for Freight Efficiency is on hand to provide guidance as these new options arise.
NACFE released a new Guidance Report, Viable Class 7 and 8 Hybrid and Alternative Fuel Tractors, to help fleet managers parse through new fuel and propulsion systems.
Mike Roeth, executive director, noted during a telephone press conference that many fuels are branded variously as “green,” “clean,” “near zero emission” and “renewable” – but that there is with no clear agreement on what these terms mean.
The spectrum of new fuel and power choices covered by the NACFE report includes:
- Commercial battery electric (CBEV)
- Fuel cell hybrid electric (FCEV)
- Compressed natural gas (CNG)
- Renewable natural gas (RNG)
- Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG)
- Propane (LPG)
- Hybrid diesel electric (HDE)
- Renewable diesel (RD)
Roeth noted that there is growing interest in such options, both for economic reasons and because of lower emissions than traditional powertrains – both critical factors for today’s fleets in the face of competitive pressures and regulatory agencies pushing toward zero-emission requirements.
However, in many cases, these alternative fuels have a host of currently unknown operational factors, such as:
- Unproven reliability
- Unproven maintainability
- Unknown obsolescence rate
- Unproven product life
- Unknown all-season/all-region capabilities
- Higher list price
- Unknown lifecycle costs
- Need for infrastructure investment
- Unknown insurance costs
- Unknown residual value
A true apples-to-apples comparison of alternative fuels to conventional diesel or gasoline vehicles is difficult, Roeth added, since alternative-fueled vehicles are inherently not identical. Moreover, each factor that is not kept similar has ramifications that impact the validity of the comparison. In order for fleet managers to to do an accurate comparison between conventional and alternative fuels, Roeth said, the following factors have to be taken into consideration:
- Energy content of fuels
- Tare weight
- Payload capacity
- Vehicle packaging
- Energy conversion efficiency
- Duty cycles
- Freight-ton efficiency
- Freight cube
- Energy pricing
- Fill times
- System cost
The 'Messy Middle'
Current difficulties aside, Roeth said the NACFE Guidance Report clearly shows a bright future for new fuel and propulsion systems. He noted that North American freight movement is becoming more predictable, with dedicated routes enabled by e-commerce and other technologies offering better duty cycles for alternative powertrains.
Given the “elegant simplicity” of electric trucks, Roeth said that looking ahead, NACFE now has high confidence of a greener future for fleets that is both profitable and economical. "In a couple of decades, moving freight in zero-emissions mode is going to both possible and profitable for fleets,” he said. “I’m not sure we would have said that a couple of years ago. But as costs fall and reliability of solar, wind and other sustainable energy sources rise, we think that this vision of the future will become reality.”
Each alternative fuel or powertrain offers benefits in the short term compared to current diesel powertrains and may have enough duty cycle scale to offer benefits in both total cost of ownership and emissions, Roeth noted. The report predicts that commercial battery-electric vehicles and fuel-cell-electric trucks will be capable of lower total cost of ownership in the 2030 timeframe.
All that said, there will be a “messy middle”’ period – which the industry has already entered – until batteries and fuel cells alone power these trucks, as alternatives offer significant improvements over the diesel and gasoline baselines, Roeth noted.
“A future zero-emission freight world will only have electric-based vehicles (CBEV, FCEV, or catenary electric) powered well-to-wheel from truly renewable sources such as hydro, solar and wind,” he added.
The study team offered these six major findings:
- North American freight movement is becoming more predictable, with dedicated routes enabled by e-commerce and other technologies, offering better duty cycles for alternative powertrains.
- Each alternative fuel powertrain offers benefits in the short term compared to current diesel and may have enough duty-cycle scale to offer total cost of ownership and emissions savings.
- Commercial battery electric vehicles and fuel cell trucks will be capable of lower total cost of ownership in the 2030 time frame.
- Vehicle specifications will be better optimized for the duty cycle and technology of the first user, limiting the applicability of the equipment for second or third users.
- There will be a “messy middle” until battery-electric and fuel cell electric powertrains alone power these trucks.
- A future zero-emission freight world will have only electric-based vehicles (CBEV, FCEV, or catenary electric), powered well-to-wheel from truly renewable sources, such as hydro, solar, and wind.
“Fleets should not delay engaging with these new technologies," Roeth said. "By exploring the use of these technologies and adopting where possible, they will help optimize these technologies for their own duty cycles and applications and take advantage of all the benefits of the various choices.”
The report includes two parity charts comparing these emerging technologies with current diesel or gasoline vehicles. One looks at the current situation with alternative fueled vehicles, and the other looks at parity in 2030.
This guidance report is the fourth in a NACFE series on commercial battery electric vehicles. Reports are available individually or as a package at www.nacfe.org/future-technology.