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Fleets in the 'messy middle' can chew gum and walk at the same time

April 18, 2023
Fleets face a challenging path with decarbonization, but they can move toward a zero-emission future while also experimenting with interim technologies such as natural gas and clean diesel.

All of us have been at a lot of trade shows, conventions, seminars, and meetings already this year. One thing I have noticed while I have been sitting in or presenting at the various educational sessions at these meetings is that a lot of people are talking about the messy middle. For those of you who have not heard the term before, NACFE coined the phrase “messy middle” to define the time between now and when we reach the point of zero-emission freight movement.

During the messy middle, fleets will be faced with multiple powertrain options, and for some that can seem daunting. But I am a firm believer that trucking folks can walk and chew gum at the same time. We’ve done it countless times in the past.

See also: Take the fork in the road to zero

Let me explain what I mean in this instance. Walking represents the march to zero-emission freight movement and includes fleets adopting battery-electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles now or soon in applications where they make sense. Run on Less – Electric showed us that battery electric vehicles (BEVs) are ready now to replace diesels in terminal tractors, vans and step vans, medium-duty box trucks, and heavy-duty regional haul applications. Hydrogen fuel cells make sense in duty cycles in which trucks need to travel more miles but BEVs do not have the range to complete those routes.

The chewing gum part is fleets analyzing and buying alternative fuel vehicles such as natural gas, hybrids, clean diesel, renewable natural gas, and other vehicles. These are interim technologies that fleets need to explore as a way to get cleaner now while they wait for more widespread availability of BEVs and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, for those technologies to develop further and for them to be a better fit for their specific use cases.

We’ve been lucky in trucking that the diesel engine has fit so many applications and duty cycles. However, as we move to the future—one in which trucks are emitting zero pollutants into the atmosphere—there is not going to be any one solution that will be right for all applications in the short term.

See also: Why diesel still matters

Fleets are going to have to choose the powertrain—or more likely powertrains—that mesh best with their operations. I have all the confidence in the world that they will make the right choices, and I am also confident that we will get to that zero-emission freight future in the coming decades.

The trucking industry has always been good at walking and chewing gum. This move to a cleaner freight future is just one more example of that.

Michael Roeth has worked in the commercial vehicle industry for nearly 30 years, most recently as executive director of the North American Council for Freight Efficiency(NACFE). He serves on the second National Academy of Sciences Committee on Technologies and Approaches for Reducing the Fuel Consumption of Medium and Heavy-Duty Vehicles and has held various positions in engineering, quality, sales, and plant management with Navistar and Behr/Cummins.

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