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Diesel is the trump card once again

Is it any surprise that diesel – despite repeated slamming, even to the point of being compared to mustard gas – is once again touted as the “powertrain of choice” in a research reported compiled at the behest of the Department of Energy?

Is ANYONE in trucking remotely surprised by this?

The report – dubbed Advancing Technology for America's Transportation Future and authored by the National Petroleum Council (NPC) at the request of U.S. Energy Secretary Stephen Chu – is a two-year study examining fuels, technologies, industry practices, and government policies through 2030 for auto, truck, air, rail, and waterborne transport.

The report also looks at what kinds of industry and government actions that could reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from U.S. transportation system some 50% by 2050.

The conclusion? Hold onto your hats here:"Diesel engines will remain the powertrain of choice for HD vehicles for decades to come because of their power and efficiency. There are, however, opportunities to improve the technology. Significant fuel economy improvements in diesel powered trucks are possible. Indeed, the fuel economy for new Class 7 & 8 HD [heavy duty] vehicles, which consume more than 70% of the fuel in the trucking fleet, could be doubled."

Wow. Guess ol’ tried and true diesel – regardless of its so-called “mustard gas” equivalency – must be doing something right after all. DUH!

"The NPC findings confirm what transportation officials and industry leaders have already long determined – that the continued advancements in clean diesel technology will continue to make diesel the dominant power source for heavy-duty trucks throughout the U.S. for decades to come," noted Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum (DTF), in a statement.

“Today, diesel powers more than 80% of freight movement in the U.S. and internationally more than 90% of global trade is moved by diesel engines," he added.

Interestingly, the NPC’s report doesn’t present a very rosy outlook for natural gas – or other alternative fuels, for that matter – as a long-term costs effective option for commercial vehicles at this point in time, largely due to the price tag for refueling infrastructure.

Here’s what it says: "Deployment of a new fuel infrastructure is a significant hurdle to the adoption of new fuel-vehicle systems. It could cost tens to hundreds of billions of dollars to provide similar alternative fuel availability as the current gasoline infrastructure and will take decades to fully deploy. Some fuels also require advances in supply-chain infrastructure technology to aid deployment. Specifically, advanced bio-fuels must overcome technology hurdles related to fuel manufacturing, and hydrogen must overcome technology hurdles related to dispensing infrastructure."

DTF’s Schaeffer also noted that NPC’s findings coincides with a recent survey of industrial freight carriers that found less than 10% of the senior executives in the poll “currently believe LNG [liquefied natural gas] will be widely adopted of over-the-road trucking.”

He added that the survey also found that while freight carriers were generally aware of LNG-powered vehicles, 72% felt that the technology had limited adoption potential for industrial freight.

This isn’t to say natural gas can’t become a significant fuel source for trucking: from where I sit, what it really indicates is that the size of the cost hurdles facing natural gas could be larger than many think.

All of which provides good grist for the strategic planning mills of fleets up and down the freight spectrum. 

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