While crude oil and diesel prices have begun to drop from record highs, no one expects them to fall all the way back to last year's level, or even knows how long it will be before they start climbing again. Long-term efforts to improve air quality and decrease greenhouse gas emissions are also gathering momentum as public awareness of the problems and need for solutions grows. Driven by cost and regulation, alternative power sources and fuels are finally entering the mainstream for trucking.
And that makes your choice of vehicles more complicated than simply matching a diesel powertrain and chassis configuration to your fleet's application.
Take the current public love affair with hybrids. In my suburban town, electric hybrid cars are a common sight even though we have little traffic congestion and most trips involve speeds of 35 mph or higher. In other words, the fuel-savings portion of the electric hybrid technology is rarely engaged, and all those well-meaning citizens are hauling around hundreds of pounds of underused batteries in the belief that they're helping to conserve fuel and improve the environment.
But if you run medium-duty trucks in a P&D operation, especially an urban one, a diesel electric hybrid is a great choice. You have the stop-and-go conditions and weight to optimize the electrical power and regeneration of those systems. Fleets already using the medium-duty diesel electric hybrids expect to cut fuel use by 30 to 40% and to see a payback in under two years.
But that doesn't make the diesel electric hybrid the right choice for every fleet. Plug-in electrics will probably be a better alternative for light-duty trucks that run short city routes with a high number of stops. They certainly worked well for milk and laundry deliveries in my grandfather's time, and it looks like they're about to make a comeback in package delivery applications.
Refuse collection trucks are heavy-duty and can make over 1,000 brake applications in a day. Relatively simple diesel hydraulic hybrids can provide fuel-saving launch assistance on every start and brake-saving power capture on every stop. Sounds like a perfect alternative power match.
Natural gas seems to fit well with heavy loads moving short distances from a centralized location, applications like container hauling out of a port or municipal service trucks. Significant emissions improvements in areas plagued with poor air quality and perhaps some fuel cost savings, too, are the benefits.
For longhaul applications, diesel is likely to remain the power king for some time. Today's engines are clean, new technology promises to improve efficiency, fuel is widely available, and none of the alternatives offer any real advantages. That's not to say there's no place for alternative power in heavy-duty OTR tractors. For example, the first practical application for fuel-cell technology could well be auxiliary power generation for tractors.
So, the good news is that there are plenty of choices for fleets looking to embrace alternative power. You now have the opportunity to match your fleet requirements with the right technology — but do your homework first. Given the costs involved, choosing the wrong one could be an expensive mistake.