Deadlines have a way of sneaking up on you no matter how far in advance you know about them. For example, my son will start college next fall. I've known this day was coming for some time and planned for it as carefully as I could both emotionally and financially.
Still, I'm not ready and wish we could postpone this rite of passage in his life as a child and in mine as a parent for another year or two.
This October, just as my son is settling into his new surroundings, trucking will begin dealing with a deadline of its own, a deadline that will significantly alter diesel engines in order to meet stringent emissions levels ordered by the Federal Courts in 1998.
We've been writing about the impact of these regulations on truck performance and operations even before the October 2002 deadline was set, going so far as to feature the topic as our cover story twice in the last two years, as well as addressing it in numerous other features, news stories and columns.
Only now, though, with the deadline just months away, do I get a sense of real concern by fleet executives about just what October 2002 engines will mean for their operations.
Some of the concerns are clearly justified. Diesels meeting the emissions deadline will add thousands of dollars to the initial cost of a truck, fuel economy will be compromised somewhat and maintenance schedules will have to be re-examined, if not modified.
Other fleet worries are driven by uncertainty. The technology chosen by most engine makers to meet the stricter levels — cooled exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) — is new for heavy-duty diesels, and truck manufacturers are only now getting these new engines for testing. Given the late date, reliability will still be a question in fleet minds come October.
And one engine maker says it will not meet the 10/02 deadline because it has a better approach than cooled EGR. However, the technology won't be ready for commercial applications until next year.
Their current engines might be available in trucks if the company is willing to incur substantial non-compliance fines. Or, they could choose to stop producing diesels for the truck market until their new product is ready.
Adding to the confusion among fleets is the fact that some diesels will not have to meet the new emissions levels until 2004. For the most part, these are either relatively unfamiliar engines from Europe or smaller bore diesels that may or may not be up to the demands of heavy-duty applications.
Given no choice by the courts, U.S. engine and truck makers have invested heavily in complying with the emissions requirements. Fleets, though, do have to make a choice, a high-stakes choice as a long-ignored deadline will finally require some action on their part.</</p>
And as much as the increase in price and operational costs will hurt, it's the uncertainties surrounding that choice that make fleets so nervous.
Next month: weighing the choices.
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