Another little engine that could

DO YOU REMEMBER the days when customers bought trucks because they needed them, rather than because a tough new emissions regulation was coming?

If we have learned anything over the past few years of boom and bust truck sales, it is the fact that the engines that power trucks also drive the demand for those trucks.

When truck engines are in demand, the chances are good that truck bodies and truck equipment are, too. When they aren't, well, you get the idea.

The inventory of pre-2007 technology engines has pretty well been bought up now, and the latest retail truck sales figures from Ward's Communications show a not-so-pretty picture — Class 6 trucks down 23% from June 2006, Class 7 trucks off 37%, and Class 8 trucks dropping 58%.

Of course, this downturn is expected to be temporary. Truck customers should begin buying again later this year. After all, more emission regulations are coming in 2010. Buyers will want to get their trucks early — just like they have every time tighter emission regulations have gone into effect.

We are certainly in favor of clean air — we breathe it whenever it's available. But we are concerned that long term, the future is a lot foggier for the fuel that we burn than the air that we breathe. Truck manufacturers and their suppliers have shown that they can radically slash the amount of pollution engines dump into the air. Efforts to meaningfully reduce fuel consumption have been far less successful.

Since the OPEC oil embargo more than 30 years ago, it has been clear that the United States is in a perilous position when it comes to its supply of energy. Yet during the past three decades, we have been unable to quench our thirst for foreign oil. When OPEC turned off the spigot in 1973, we were importing much of our energy. Today we import most of it.

The vulnerability of our energy position became even more obvious recently when ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips both walked away from the millions of dollars they had invested in Venezuela after Hugo Chavez declared that a majority of their investment is now the property of Petróleos de Venezuela S.A.

Folks, we need another engine, one that runs on a fuel that we can buy from our friends and neighbors. But until that technology is ready for the marketplace, truck equipment distributors can expect to see trucks arriving in their shops with a lot more new stuff than just a diesel particulate filter. Look for a series of “bridge technologies” — incremental steps that will reduce consumption of gasoline or diesel — until we can figure out how to move trucks with something other than fossil fuels.

For example, a number of medium-duty truck manufacturers are beginning to build hybrid trucks, and fleets are beginning to buy them. Some of these commercial trucks — which combine diesel and electric motors — are reportedly reducing diesel consumption by as much as 70%. For a detailed report on the state of medium-duty hybrid trucks, see our story on Page 30.

We also ran across a recent report on what is purported to be the first engine certified to comply with EPA's 2010 emissions regulations. Cummins Westport, a joint venture between Cummins Inc and Westport Innovations, announced July 10 that it has received formal certification from the EPA for an engine that complies with the EPA's limit of 0.2g/bhp-hr oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and 0.01 g/bhp-hr of particulate matter (PM).

But this engine runs on natural gas, not diesel. Based on the Cummins ISX diesel engine platform, the Cummins Westport ISL G uses a small amount of diesel pilot fuel for ignition and then operates approximately 95% on natural gas.

The reduced energy content of natural gas requires larger fuel tanks unless customers are willing to sacrifice cruising range. For truck equipment distributors, that could require real creativity in order to work around the larger tanks when mounting many types of truck bodies and equipment.

Ultimately, however, these types of engines may pave the way for the use of hydrogen — a fuel that OPEC does not control — to operate commercial trucks. Of course, there are a lot more hurdles to overcome than simply trying to mount a PTO when a LNG or CNG tank is in the way.

Regardless of the technology that eventually becomes the new standard, the days of “cheap” energy are quickly coming to a close. It won't be long before we will pay as much for a gallon of fuel as we do for a cup of Starbucks.

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