Diesel’s market dominance earns respect but little love

Further fossil fuel-based engine efficiency gains are doable but add complexity

With diesel fuel powering 97% of all heavy-duty trucks, it seems silly to predict its industry dominance will end.

But don’t tell that to California. The climate-conscious state mostly ignores the fuel’s significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions, preferring to press for zero emissions from all commercial vehicles by the mid-2030s.

An electric future in which batteries and hydrogen replace diesel is a captivating idea. German truck maker Daimler AG, including its market-leading North American unit, said Oct. 25 it is targeting 2039 to sell only battery- and hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric trucks in its key markets.

At last week’s biannual North American Commercial Vehicle Show in Atlanta, three Class 8 hydrogen fuel-cell prototype trucks from Hyundai Motor, Nikola Motors and engine-maker Cummins Inc. drew consistent crowds of curious onlookers on the exhibit floor.


Battery electric concepts covered chunks of real estate in numerous displays. Navistar International Corp. (NYSE: NAV) showed its production-intent medium-duty eMV truck for the first time. Peterbilt brought three electric truck models, each in testing with customers.

“The focus of the show is on the future, not the present,” said Tim DeNoyer, a vice president and senior analyst at ACT Research.

Diesel under the radar

It’s not surprising, then, that a North America Council on Freight Efficiency (NACFE) presentation called “How Much Opportunity Remains for Efficiency Improvements with Diesel Trucks?” attracted only about a dozen attendees on the show’s next-to-last day.

“At $100 for an hour listening to Mike Roeth, I thought a dozen was fine,” said Roeth, the NACFE executive director. 

The main takeaways: Diesel will retain its dominance because it has an installed infrastructure and it is capable of long-range driving between refuelings. Electric substitution makes the most sense for box trucks and short-haul dry vans that can return to base for nightly recharging.

“The progress diesel is making is real,” DeNoyer said. “But the majority of that impact has already happened.”

That is consistent with Roeth’s conclusion. Improving selective catalyst reduction (SCR) and wider adoption of waste heat recovery, like that used in Mack Trucks, could make diesel cleaner. But those changes add complexity to engine technology.

Electric future

Electric powertrains have fewer parts and require less maintenance than diesel-powered engines. The downside is that the weight and volume of batteries needed to propel a fully loaded 80,000-pound truck reduce freight capacity. The elusive breakthrough is greater energy per cell. Until then, fuel cells are attracting votes as the best alternative for long-haul trucking.

Just not quite yet.

Nikola plans to begin regular production in Arizona in late 2022 for its Class 8 fuel cell trucks. With 14,000 orders, it has closed the books until production begins. 

Hyundai (OTC: HYMTF) suggests it will sell Class 8 fuel cell trucks like its HDC-6 Neptune concept shown in Atlanta. But it is not divulging when.

Cummins (NYSE: CMI) continues to add to its 30 years of fuel cell expertise with acquisitions. But it sees China and Europe as better near-term prospects for sales than North America, according to Thad Ewald, vice president of Corporate Strategy and Business Development.

Diesel primacy

Nothing challenges diesel’s primacy today. 

The Diesel Technology Forum, a nonprofit advocacy group, in late October released a slew of new statistics on what it calls near-zero-emissions diesel technology that yields less pollution and additional fuel savings. Clean diesel powers 43% of U.S. commercial trucks, according to IHS Markit research the Forum commissioned.

More than 4.5 million new-generation diesel Class 3-8 trucks travel U.S. roads, a 6.8% increase since 2017.

The Forum states the emissions and fuel-savings gains in a range of eye-catching numerical and geographical equivalencies:

The emission savings in commercial vehicles equal the production of 26 million electric cars. 

Or eliminating the particulate matter emissions from all U.S. cars for 33 years.

Or creating a 27,000-turbine wind farm on land four times the size of Washington, D.C.

“These new findings reinforce the importance of the new generation of diesel in delivering vital societal benefits today in the here and now,” said Allen Schaeffer, the Forum’s executive director. “No technology is as vitally important to achieving current and future goals as advanced technology diesel engines.”

California’s reluctance to embrace clean diesel baffles the Forum.

“Certainly, we’ve put a lot of effort into talking to the Air Resources Board and the California Energy Commission,” Forum spokeswoman Kristen Gifford told FreightWaves.

“The state is leaving clean air benefits on the table by not ordering fleets to use clean diesel. They are penalizing a technology that can help today,” she said. “They don’t have to wait 15-20 years for zero emissions.”

Alan Adler

Alan Adler is a Detroit-based award-winning journalist who worked for The Associated Press, the Detroit Free Press and most recently as Detroit Bureau Chief for He also spent two decades in domestic and international media relations and executive communications with General Motors.


  1. Never mind diesel !

    The story of the day is :

    ” McDonald’s announced former CEO Steve Easterbrook’s departure Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019, saying he demonstrated poor judgment by engaging in a consensual relationship with an employee. ” , LOL !

    “McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook—credited with turning around the fast food giant—has been fired after he broke company rules by having a consensual relationship with an employee.

    The firm’s board voted on Easterbrook’s departure following an investigation into the relationship that flouted company rules. Under personal conduct rules at the company, managers are not allowed to enter into relationships with a subordinate. 

    McDonald’s CEO Stephen Easterbrook had a $15.9 million pay package last year, while the median employee made $7,473.”

  2. I think people always forget that electric cars and trucks are not and won’t be zero emissions. The (already overstressed) electric grid will have to burden the load of these large energy suckers, which EV’s really are.

    There aren’t enough windmills and solar panels to meet today’s energy needs, not to mention the future needs. If the Electric Vehicle ownership grows more than today’s (2%) single digit EV ownership, we will have some serious issues with keeping our homes powered. The pollution made from creating this immense power increase will still exist, especially as more hydroelectric Dams are targeted for removal.

    Lithium ion batteries are certainly not new technology, but they still have issues with not holding a full charge after just a few years, they also lose range dramatically in cold weather. If you drive many miles a day, these variables alone make this technology a DOA deal to most business owners.