Trucks at Work

Political muscle

A reporter named Patrick O'Leary from South Africa asked an interesting question at the recent "Shaping Future Transportation" meeting put on Daimler AG at its headquarters campus in Stuttgart, Germany.

Andreas Renschler, head of Daimnler's truck division, commented that the debate over the feasibility of alternative fuels -- biodiesel, ethanol, natural gas, fuel cells, etc. -- for commerical trucks wasn't based on technology but on politics. In his view -- and that of other OEMs -- alternative fuels and hybrid systems could be quickly deployed to make drastic reductions in petroleum use worldwide. But the political will to do so, to Renschler's mind, still isn't there.

That's when Pat O'Leary raised his hand. "Look, you're a big company, your competitor Volvo is a big company. Why don't you use that political muscle and kick ass?" O'Leary's question got a lot of laughs (and well before his comment got translated -- looks like some phrases are universally understood!) but raises an interesting point. The technology is here and the fuels are here. Why aren't we using them?

OK, yes, everything noted above -- hybrids included -- costs way more than traditional diesel-powered trucks, even ones upgraded with new low-emission technology. The fuels themselves all have drawbacks in terms of less energy content per gallon when compared to gasoline and diesel. And when you talk about ethanol and biodiesel, that opens up conflict with the food supply. And what happens if we experience massive drought or crop failures? There goes the fuel supply, for no one in their right mind will stand by and watch corn go to ethanol plants when people are starving.

Still, all that considered, OEMs have developed an impressive array of options for commercial fleets, ones centered around vehicle application. Hybrids do very well in stop-and-go, urban delivery, and bus operations, while natural gas seems to be a good fit for refuse fleets and buses as well. Long haul trucks can easily switch over to fuels made from biomass (plants, organic wastes, you name it) as the diesel engine can really run on just about anything as long as the fuel quality is consistent.

Yet here we are, again facing high fuel prices as oil inches closer to $100 a barrel, again cursing OPEC under our collective breath, and again wondering just how much of these oil riches Iran is using to speed up its nuclear aspirations.

Not only do we need the political will to make the shift to alternative fuels -- yes, this means mandates -- we need the political smarts to do it. We can't leave loopholes whereby petroluem giants can drop a pint of soybean oil into one of their million gallon petroleum tanks and then get to call it biodiesel. We can't just stick it to the transportation like we've done with emissions -- tax credits, discounts, incentives, whatever you call them, are needed to get people to make the switch. We can't stand back and let truckstops figure out if they can afford to build biodiesel refueling sites or not -- we need a national (if not international) strategy to build the refueling infrastructure necessary to support alternative fuels.

Sure, we all know how politcians today are gumming up the works when we try to change course on a variety of issues. The U.S. Congress especially is infamous for loading up bills with earmarks (worthless pork) meant to curry favor and protect their jobs. But energy security is serious, serious business -- the U.S. has its jugular exposed on this issue in a huge way. And it's not impossible to fix this, etiher.

Look at Brazil: that nation's vehicles run almost solely on ethanol now, generated from its vast supplies of sugar cane. Sure, the U.S. is a way, WAY bigger nut to crack -- we don't grow nearly the amount of sugar cane, their climate is far different than ours -- but why can't we cut our petroleum use by half using such alternatives? In my neck of the woods, for example, Washington D.C., is witnessing an explosion of hybrid car sales. Why? Because hybrid owners get to use the special carpool lanes during rush hour -- without carpooling. That simple fact -- not the fuel savings, not the lower emission benefits, not even tax credits -- generated this massive switch.

It'll be complicated, require lifestyle changes, and will generate all kinds of attempts at loopholes and opt-outs and other nonsense. But the time is here to start making the switch -- it's a political issue now, so we've got to put some muscle into this to get it done.