What a long, strange trip it's been

WE AREN'T there yet.

Last month, we talked about the work diesel engine manufacturers have done to dramatically slash the amount of undesirable stuff that truck exhaust puts into the atmosphere.

In advance of tighter diesel emission regulations that will take effect next year, diesel engine manufacturers have developed engines that will meet the standards. While questions remain (at least in the mind of the buyer) about fuel economy and durability, engine manufacturers are confident that they have accomplished their goals.

Truck manufacturers have been hard at work to incorporate the new technology into their vehicles while maintaining their functionality. That, too, was no simple task. As a General Motors representative explains on Page 49, getting the systems to function required a considerable amount of onboard computer programming. GM trucks complying with next year's diesel regulations will have twice as many lines of computer code as current models. But as a group, the truck manufacturers say they, too, will make their regulatory deadline.

As for truck equipment distributors, many have been reading articles or attending workshops in an effort to educate themselves on the regulation. While the effects should be minimal on standard truck equipment installations, these distributors want to be ready when the 2007 models start rolling into their shops in a few months.

But we aren't there yet. Certainly not in a big-picture sense.

Getting cleaner trucks on the road involves more than just revisions to truck hardware — it also includes major changes in the composition of diesel fuel. If used for off-road applications, diesel can contain 3,000 parts of sulfur per million. Beginning in June, at least 80% of the diesel fuel produced for on-road use must be classified as ultra-low sulfur diesel (ULSD) — a formulation that cannot exceed 15 parts of sulfur per million.

What about the remaining 20% of diesel production sold for highway use? It must be low-sulfur diesel — with no more than 500 parts of sulfur per million.

As 2007 approaches, the diesel distribution channel faces three deadlines for implementing ultra-low sulfur diesel: June 1 for refineries, September 1 for terminals, and October 15 for retailers. Of those, nothing looms quite as large as the seemingly simple task of transporting the fuel to retail outlets.

Our industry certainly is being affected by the emissions regulations, but we aren't alone. Consider where else the repercussions of the regulations are reverberating:

  • Refineries

    Oil refineries will switch over to produce ultra-low sulfur diesel beginning in June. To allow for possible increases in sulfur content in the distribution system, they plan to produce diesel with only 8-10 parts of sulfur per million.

  • Fleets

    Let's say the diesel leaves the refinery at 10 parts per million sulfur content and picks up another five parts along the way. At 15 parts per million, the fuel is still in compliance, but the tank fleets delivering the fuel to the retail outlets will have zero margin for error. This will have a profound effect on the way delivery fleets will operate, perhaps requiring the use of dedicated tank trailers for specific grades of diesel.

  • Retail operations

    Expect confusion at the pumps. A new set of labels will go on diesel pumps beginning June 1, even though retail operations will not be required to sell the stuff until October 15.

    The regs specify two types of labels — one for pumps dispensing ULSD and one for pumps delivering low-sulfur diesel. The label on pumps dispensing ULSD will say that the fuel contains no more than 15 parts of sulfur per million. It will explain that this fuel will be required for use with 2007-model trucks or later and is recommended for all diesel engines. The other label is for pumps dispensing low-sulfur diesel (LSD). It will say that the fuel containing up to 500 parts of sulfur per million. The label also will warn customers that they may cause damage if they use the fuel on 2007 engines. Question: when you fuel your vehicle, do you read the label on the pump?

  • Truck operators

    Our industry's ultimate customers may be ready for the new regulations — if they have their orders on the books for 2006 engines, if they have an operation for which a gasoline-powered truck is an option, or if they have a healthy profit-and-loss statement capable of handling the extra costs that they will begin incurring even before the new regs take effect. Otherwise, when it comes to getting ready for 2007, they aren't there yet.

It's been a long, strange trip, and it's not over yet.

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