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NACFE: 'Waiting is no longer an option' for realistic emissions reductions in trucking

Feb. 27, 2023
The North American Council for Freight Efficiency's latest report provides fleets with a data-based framework to help them navigate various powertrain options during trucking's 'messy middle.'

ORLANDO, Florida—During what the North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE) deems “the messy middle,” fleets will be faced with several powertrain options, including advanced diesel, renewable fuels, natural gas, hydrogen, hybrids, battery electric power, and hydrogen fuel cells, with no one right solution for all duty cycles.

“Trucking is decarbonizing,” Mike Roeth, NACFE’s executive director, pointed out during American Trucking Associations’ 2023 Technology & Maintenance Council (TMC) Annual Meeting. “We are doing it in a lot of different ways—from better efficiency in diesel trucks, going to zero with battery-electric and hydrogen, and then looking at these alternatives in the messy middle.”

During TMC, NACFE released a new report, “The Messy Middle: A Time For Action,” that provides fleets with a data-based framework on which to base their powertrain decisions.

See also: More TMC 2023 coverage

Jeff Seger, the lead author of NACFE’s report, broke down some of the factors that fleets must consider during this period. Those factors include economics in terms of fuel and energy prices, regulations, and sustainability goals for fleets and their customers, Seger noted.

"The messy middle is applicable to all commercial vehicles, but we're targeting long-haul Class 8—that's kind of the tough nut to crack in terms of decarbonization," Seger explained.

"The model is clearly changing for fleetsfrom get it there on time at the lowest cost to get it there on time at lowest cost but in an environmentally friendly way," he added. "That's the whole challenge we are trying to address."

Messy isn't a bad thing

While the messy middle can be complicated, NACFE representatives emphasized that they do not view messy as bad, but rather see it as a time when fleets will want to act, will have to evaluate many options, and will need to look beyond just the truck to the infrastructure needed to support that truck. Seger added that the messy middle represents a period in which fleets will have a lot of options and a lot of decisions to make.

See also: What does 'the messy middle' really mean?

In its report, NACFE attempted to compare the different types of powertrains being offered and the key factors for fleets to consider when making the decision about which power options are right for them now and in the future. It also includes a framework for powertrain decisions fleets can use to evaluate their options.

"We're trying to simplify a lot of the complexity," Seger said, pointing out that solutions and information will continue to evolve and look different over time.

For instance, diesel remains the gold standard today in terms of availability, infrastructure, and range, whereas battery-electric and hydrogen fuel cell are the gold standard in terms of zero emissions (see NACFE's powertrain chart below), according to NACFE. However, Seger noted, when it comes to well-to-wheel production for battery-electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, the industry needs to consider how green or sustainably sourced those materials actually are.

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"Battery-electric and hydrogen fuel cell are part of the messy middle and part of this timeframe when we are figuring it out," Roeth said. "There might be some high-risk, high rewards for fleets in this, where those that pick the right technology for their business are going to be successful, but if you pick the wrong one, it's going to be challenging."

With that in mind, NACFE created a framework that starts with looking at battery-electric trucks and then moving to other options if battery-electric or hydrogen fuel cell options aren't viable solutions for specific fleet duty cycles and operations.

Roeth suggested in those cases fleet might consider hybrid or other sustainable options that fall in line with a fleet's financial situation, sustainability, and the availability of one option over another based on business operations.

"You can't stick your head in the sand," Roeth urged. "If that final piece of the framework for your fleet is diesel, then we suggest that you get very aggressive with efficiency (for instance, aerodynamics, low-rolling resistance tires, etc)."

The primary conclusion of the report is that it is now time for fleets to act and begin to wade into the messy middle to get to a zero-emissions future. "Waiting is no longer an option," according to NACFE.

"The messy middle will last forever in our industry," noted Robert Ulsh, VP, dealer and international sales, Great Dane. "There is always innovation and continuous improvement. The messy middle is where innovation occurs."

NACFE's report also indicates that all industry stakeholders must support fleets in making the right adoption decisions, which should include a realistic understanding of pipeline capabilities and an even higher level of collaboration.

"During the messy middle, fleets will need to be open to changing operations to optimize for the new technologies," said Rick Mihelic, NACFE's director of emerging technologies. "They will have to look at things like adding stops for charging of battery-electric vehicles in regional and long-haul operations and improving intermodal rail use."

As a result of NACFE's exploring the messy middle, Roeth added that fleets must have a better understanding of the options available now, including heavy-duty natural gas tractors. NACFE will publish a report on natural gas later this year.

About the Author

Cristina Commendatore

Cristina Commendatore was previously the Editor-in-chief of FleetOwner magazine. She reported on the transportation industry since 2015, covering topics such as business operational challenges, driver and technician shortages, truck safety, and new vehicle technologies. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut.

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