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Truck Tech: Good versus the perfect edition

Reinterpreting an amorphism; proverbial wisdom and naturally, it's a gas

Is a measured approach to zero-emission trucking versus going all-in on electrification reversing the amorphism about the perfect being the enemy of the good? Also this week, add one autonomous trucking advisory board, and Cummins makes further natural gas engine inroads in a supply deal with Peterbilt.

Fooling with Voltaire

Voltaire’s memorable expression — the perfect is the enemy of the good — gets reversed when it comes to the rush to electric trucks versus a more deliberate transition from diesel-powered engines. Engine manufacturers and supporters think their efforts at reducing pollution do not have to be cast as an enemy of battery-electric vehicles.

Jed Mandel, president of the Truck & Engine Manufacturers Association, said there is no arguing that the overarching goal is a zero-emissions future.

The question, he says, is what is the best way to get there, especially as the Environmental Protection Agency is proposing strict new regulations for nitrogen oxides emissions from commercial trucks. NOx is responsible for much of the brownish haze that settles over the Los Angeles Basin where more than 80 communities are crowded. 

“EMA members have worked collaboratively with EPA to achieve national environmental rules that have resulted in a more than 98% reduction in NOx and particulate matter emissions from commercial vehicles, and our members are investing billions of dollars in technology that will achieve zero emissions,” Mandel said.

Not fast enough

But it won’t be tomorrow. And that means it won’t be fast enough for the California Air Resources Board.

“The real goal here is zero-emissions vehicles, that’s really California’s more compelling priority on this,” CARB member Daniel Sperling told CNN. “This is a transition issue really. NOx is a problem; it forms ozone, but we’ll get more NOx reduction with zero-emissions vehicles.”

The Environmental Protection Agency’s final rule for nitrogen oxide reduction in trucking could make the good the enemy of the perfect. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

In an interview with CNN, Mandel said zero-emissions technology “is coming and we want it to come.” But EPA’s final NOx rule should not “take away the investment needed for the real prize, which is zero-emissions vehicles.” 

Similar concerns about retarding progress in areas other than electrification comes from Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum.

“The right rule will enable further improvements in diesel technology and continued investments in new vehicles that will be important to sustain progress toward meeting both clean air and climate goals,” Schaeffer said.

EPA’s final rule must allow time for manufacturers to continue developing affordable, customer-acceptable zero-emissions trucks and for the nation to implement the purchase incentives and crucial charging infrastructure necessary to support a zero-emissions future in the heavy-duty trucking industry.  

Pincer move

CARB is having none of it. Its pincer move to force manufacturers to make at least 5% zero-emission tractors beginning in 2024 is expected to be matched later this year by a rule requiring fleets to buy a like amount of zero-polluting trucks at the tailpipe. The source of the electricity to charge them could still be sourced from coal and other fossil fuels.

But CARB this week released more than $200 million — collected in cap and trade pollution fines — for vouchers to help fleets afford the higher up-front costs of electric trucks. And what they buy today counts against the future quotas.

“We’re committed to a zero-emission future for the commercial vehicle industry, but it’s going to take a lot of work that we as manufacturers can’t control,” Mandel said, adding that his group’s members are actively producing zero-emissions vehicles.  

Charging versus fueling

New research from the University of Michigan unpacks some of the ways electric charging can be managed to make financial and environmental sense. For example, charging during the day and making deliveries at night could significantly lower emissions in some areas. 

Paying regular attention to changes in the local electric grid — not just once a year — could reduce emissions by 19% to 62%.

The Michigan study is at least the second, following a deep dive by ACT Research, that shows the lifetime cost of an electric vehicle fleet may be less than a diesel delivery vehicle fleet.

But fleet managers have to be convinced that a freely fillable diesel tractor trailer that can haul 30,000 pounds of cargo with a total gross weight of 80,000 pounds is a bad thing. According to the DTF, the typical semi covers 100,000 to 120,000 miles a year. With a 300-gallon capacity fuel tank, these trucks can cover 1,500 miles before refueling.

The best of today’s Class 8 electrics have a range of 275 and 300 miles — the Volvo VNR Electric and the battery-electric Nikola Tre, respectively — and need about 90 minutes to recharge with direct-current fast charging.

Good, better or less, conventional diesel-powered trucks will dominate most regional and longer haul sectors of trucking for many years. 

Greater greenhouse gas reductions are possible depending on the time of day an electric truck is charged. (Photo: Volvo Trucks North America)

Autonomous advising

The idea of advisory boards is biblically based, enshrined in Proverbs 15:22 — “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.”

When it comes to autonomous trucking, the maxim is practically universal. The latest to line up wisdom is Torc Robotics, the independent subsidiary of Daimler Truck.

Trailer management firm Baton along with C.H. Robinson, Covenant Logistics, Daimler Truck North America, Penske Truck Leasing, Ryder System Inc., and Schneider are joining the Torc Autonomous Advisory Council.

“We believe it’s important to collaborate with other leading companies who are creating the next generation of transportation solutions to meet the future needs of our industry and enhancing the supply chain,” said Paul Rosa, Penske Truck Leasing senior vice president of procurement and fleet planning.

Said Michael Fleming, Torc founder and CEO: “The Torc Autonomous Advisory Council is the next step in the process of incorporating deep industry insights and expertise as Torc works to commercialize autonomous trucking.” 

Michael Fleming, founder and CEO of Torc Robotics, is adding an advisory board to the autonomous trucking startup. (Photo: Alan Adler/FreightWaves)

Pressing its advantage

Cummins Inc. is racking up new business in natural gas engines, winning Peterbilt’s business for its B6.7N natural gas engine for the Paccar subsidiary’s new medium-duty Model 536 and 537 trucks.

The B6.7N engine, with 200-240 horsepower and 520-560 pound feet of available torque, emits 50% lower NOx emissions than current EPA standards. Peterbilt offers two other natural gas engine platforms: the Cummins’ L9N featuring 300-320 HP and 860-1,000 pound feet of torque. 

The heavy-duty trucks Model 520, Model 567 and Model 579 can be outfitted with the ISX12N featuring 400 HP and 1,450 pound feet of torque. Cummins (NYSE: CMI) plans a 15-liter natural gas engine for the U.S. in 2024.

Class 6 Peterbilt Model 536 and Model 537 will get natural gas engine options from Cummins. (Image: Peterbilt Motors)

Cummins is making bank on conventional medium-duty truck engines as well, winning all of Daimler Truck’s global medium-duty business and cutting deals with Isuzu for diesel engines and a battery-electric prototype. Toyota’s Hino Trucks subsidiary will get medium- and heavy-duty engines from Cummins under a 2021 agreement.

Best of the rest

Nikola has signed a commercial finance company to write deals for its battery-electric and hydrogen fuel cell Tre models. ENGS Commercial Finance Co., a member of Mitsubishi HC Capital Group, signed on to work through the Nikola dealer group on the purchase of Nikola vehicles, charging assets and infrastructure requirements.

ENGS has more than 70 years of experience as a lender financing trucks and trailers for small, medium and large fleets.  

Kenworth picked up an order for 20 T680E electric Class 8 trucks from 4 Gen Logistics, a California drayage provider that services the Port of Long Beach from a yard in Wilmington and a terminal in Rialto near San Bernardino serving the Inland Empire. 

Daimler Truck North America (DTNA) is putting all of its procurement and supply chain activities under Carsten Kirchholtes, formerly general manager of supply chain, to take a holistic approach to end-to-end management of everything related to truck production.

That’s it for this week. Thanks for reading. Click here to get Truck Tech delivered via email on Fridays.


Alan Adler

Alan Adler is an award-winning journalist who worked for The Associated Press and the Detroit Free Press. He also spent two decades in domestic and international media relations and executive communications with General Motors.