The Future of Diesel: Fact v. Fiction, Part 2

03.12.18 | Blog | By:

In Part 1 of this series, Allen focused on light-duty vehicles and diesel. In this post, he looks at heavy-duty vehicles and diesel and what the outlook for diesel is generally.

While the potential for electrification of commercial trucks has recently captured interest, thanks to announcements from Cummins, Tesla and Nikola, the quick call as being the “death knell” for heavy-duty diesel is unfounded. Aspirations and predictions for new fuels and technologies are high, but must be evaluated in the context of reality.

Diesel engines are today and will remain in the future the prime mover for this key sector of the global economy. Diesel powers well over 90 percent of all commercial trucks on the road in America today. In 2017, the North American Class 3-8 truck market came in at more than 250,000 vehicles. Of that population, approximately 30 percent of trucks are powered by the newest generation of clean diesel technology. In the off-road sector, diesel engines continue to power manufacturing, agriculture and construction projects around the globe.

The diesel engine has achieved this dominance over many decades and challenges from many other fuel types because it offers a unique combination of unmatched features: proven fuel efficiency, economical operation, power, reliability, durability, availability, easy access to fueling and service facilities, and now near-zero emissions performance. It is unmatched by any other powertrain option in this sector.

According to projections by The Fuels Institute, diesel will remain the predominant fuel for commercial vehicles, even in 2025 when it maintains 96 percent of the medium- and heavy-duty market. As the quotes below attest, many in the industry agree:

  • Thomas Linebarger, CEO, Cummins: “Cummins will continue to provide a variety of power technologies — including electric, diesel, natural gas and future alternative fuels — for different applications. We need to make sure we have the right technology for the right application. Even if the electrified power train replaces the internal combustion engine completely, that’s still a 20- to 25-year transition period customers have to manage through.” Source
  • Lars Stenqvist, CTO, Volvo Group; Executive Vice President, Volvo Groups Trucks Technology: “[Diesel and the combustion engine] will be the foundation of long-haul freight for many years to come. We are investing heavily in next-generation combustion engines, and it still has a lot of development potential.” Source
  • Jose Avila, Powertrain Division President, Continental: “The diesel engine will continue to play an important role in meeting mobility needs for the foreseeable future. It is vital for us to develop the technology to support extremely low-pollutant diesel operation.” Source

Yet, diesel technology is not standing still. Rather, it is being enhanced every day across a wide range of applications. From coupling with hybrid-electric technology and battery storage systems, to pushing thermal efficiency boundaries, to utilizing 100 percent non-petroleum bio-based diesel fuels, the new generation of clean diesel power is part of a sustainable future. Clean diesel technology ensures that truckers can deliver their cargo anywhere, anytime, under any conditions.

New diesel technology is more fuel efficient and lowest in emissions. Thanks to a continuous improvement in efficiency and performance of clean diesel power, U.S. truckers last year saved $2,640 per truck, saved 4.2 billion gallons of fuel across the fleet, and reduced overall emission by 43 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, 21 million tonnes of nitrogen oxides, and 1.2 million tonnes of particulate matter.

Diesel technology also continues to offer truckers the greatest fuel efficiency for the dollar. As evidenced in the recent “Run on Less” campaign from the North American Council on Freight Efficiency, after more than 50,000 miles, the seven Class 8 diesel trucks in the demonstration exceeded an average of 10 mpg, even with heavy loads of more than 65,000 lbs., with some trucks exceeding 12 mpg. This represents a dramatic improvement in ton-mile freight efficiency.

With compliance with Phase 1 of the new rules now complete, manufacturers are working toward meeting the challenge of the Phase 2 Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction and Fuel Economy rules. These will make the heavy-duty diesel truck of the future even more fuel efficient and even less emitting than it is today.

Truckers also continue to demonstrate their preference for clean diesel technologies. Take the ports of Loa Angles and Long Beach as an example: beginning in 2008, when the ports started requiring truckers to switch to cleaner technologies, nine out of 10 port truckers chose clean diesel over alternative fuels. The net result: the ports have already achieved their particulate matter (PM) emissions reduction targets set for 2023, and are very close to achieving their nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions reduction goals ahead of schedule.

So, What is Diesel’s Future?

First and foremost, any fuel or technology in the future must be desirable and able to deliver meaningful benefits to the customer: the vehicle owner.

Can we predict the future of fuels and transportation choices? Hardly. Simply running the numbers on battery prices and extrapolate that to hitting the “tipping point” of widespread full vehicle electrification, or knowing future gasoline prices doesn’t give us real answers. The truth is much harder and unpredictable.

Take for example the trends in pickup trucks and SUVs. By all accounts, pickup trucks should not be the best-selling three vehicles for a single year, let alone for three decades. These vehicles get worse fuel economy than smaller vehicles. Most Americans don’t live on farms, and rarely use their truck’s full hauling or towing potential. Few SUV owners ever go off-roading or even use their four-wheel-drive capabilities, even though they pay a premium for the option. And yet, pickups and SUVs remain the most popular selling vehicle type, meeting the lifestyle needs of many.

The same holds true for other sectors.

Above all, American’s value choice and independence, whether it is in fast food or vehicle technologies. As Mary Barra, the CEO of General Motors stated, “I think it works best when, instead of mandating, customers are choosing the technology that meets their needs.” This holds true for every aspect – light-duty, heavy-duty, off-road, power-gen and marine. Let’s make sure customers of all kinds keep the right to choose what’s best for their own needs.

Diesel has evolved, and continues to evolve, to meet the challenges of the future, of a more sustainable world, a desire for growing economies, greater mobility and protection of the climate.

Allen Schaeffer is Executive Director of the Diesel Technology Forum.