Obama mandate will shift truck R&D focus

The fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas (GHG) emission standards for medium- and heavy-duty trucks endorsed by the Obama administration last week are going to radically alter the research and development focus of truck OEMs going forward, moving them away from reducing exhaust pollutants for the first time in decades

The fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas (GHG) emission standards for medium- and heavy-duty trucks created by the Obama Administration and unveiled on Friday will radically alter the research and development focus of truck OEMs going forward, moving them away from reducing exhaust pollutants for the first time in decades.

“As concerns are shifting in Congress and the administration towards climate change and reducing oil imports, fuel economy naturally becomes more critical,” Dawn Fenton, director of policy for the Diesel Technology Forum (DTF) told FleetOwner.

Part of the reason for that shift, too, is that levels of “critical” exhaust pollutants such as oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and particulate matter (PM) are now about as low as possible following the implementation of successively more restrictive emission standards in 2002, 2007 and 2010, she added.

In an interview earlier this year, Allen Schaeffer, DTF’s executive director, pointed out that switching the R&D focus of truck makers won’t be easy, especially in light of the economic upheavals of the past few years.

“This pursuit of higher engine efficiency and lower CO2 [carbon dioxide] levels – without slipping on any of the environmental accomplishments – will create unprecedented challenges in the industry,” he told FleetOwner. “They have the potential to make the emissions standards milestones look comparatively easy.”

He noted that the U.S. economic recession has reigned in new truck R&D spending, and with truck sales down steeply since 2006, recovering previous R&D investments made to reduce emissions alone has probably been significantly delayed and/or deferred for some time to come.

“This next challenge to make heavy-duty trucks substantially more fuel efficient will be a doozy,” he added. “To reach these new levels of heavy-duty truck efficiency of the total vehicle requires a lot of new basic engineering science work – algorithms for determining how to measure fuel economy and the effects of the many different variables, materials science research, etc.”

Truck OEMs, though, are confident they can comply with the fuel efficiency and GHG rules that the federal government plans to phase in between model years 2014 and 2018, even if most remain cautious as they wait to see how the rules are put together.

“Using less fuel is good for our customers’ bottom lines as well as the environment,” said Denny Slagle, president and CEO of Mack Trucks, following the Rose Garden ceremony last week when President Obama signed the memorandum directing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Dept. of Transportation (DOT) to jointly craft the new fuel efficiency/GHG standards.

“As part of a global company, we’re pleased that the principles agreed upon here in Washington today call for worldwide alignment of GHG emission and fuel efficiency standards,” Slagle added, referring to Mack’s Swedish owner AB Volvo.

He stressed, however, that any such standards for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles must be established in a way that recognizes the commercial needs of the trucking industry and the demands of heavy-duty applications.

“They must take into consideration technology improvement opportunities across the entire vehicle and its operation, [be] compatible with the complexities of the marketplace and avoid unintended consequences,” Slagle said.

While the industry has made huge advances in reducing the emissions of PM, NOx and sulfur oxides from trucks, G. Tommy Hodges, chairman of the American Trucking Assns., added that unfortunately, some of those advances came at the cost of a fuel economy reduction, which meant a slight increase in CO2 output. “Now we have the opportunity to fix that and substantially increase our fuel economy,” he said.

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