In a year that's so far been characterized by wallet-friendly fuel prices, talk about alternative fuel options seems to have dwindled. Those enticingly low prices at the pump won't last forever, and discussions about various fuel options will rebound just as fast. The auto industry has seen its share of alternative fuel gains and successes over the past few years. There's still lots of work to be done, however, especially when it comes to trucks, which are often overshadowed by hybrids and more fuel-efficient smaller cars.
Today's trucks are powered by a number of alternative fuel sources, some of which are more common than others. An example is flexible-fuel vehicles, which are designed to operate on an array of gasoline and ethanol blends. Then there are biodiesel trucks that perform on a mix of biodiesel and conventional petrodiesel fuel. Some trucks also run on compressed natural gas or liquefied petroleum gas, both of which are cleaner burning than traditional gasoline.
Biodiesel is a renewable fuel source derived from animal fats, vegetable oils, or leftover restaurant grease. Its physical properties are similar to petroleum diesel, but biodiesel fuel cuts back on emissions, particularly among older vehicles. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the most frequently used biodiesel blend is B20, a mixture that consists of 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent conventional diesel. Then there is B5, with 5 percent biodiesel and 95 percent diesel, which is commonly used in fleets. Most diesel trucks (especially newer ones) are capable of running on some form of biodiesel fuel.
Flexible-fuel vehicles, or FFVs, contain an internal combustion engine that runs just as well on regular gasoline as it does on E85. The U.S. Department of Energy defines E85 as “a gasoline-ethanol blend containing 51% to 83% ethanol, depending on geography and season.” FFVs can also simultaneously run on a mix of regular gasoline and E85.
Many trucks and SUVs on today's market fall under the FFV category. Some popular makes and models include:
- Chevrolet Equinox (FWD)
- GMC Terrain (FWD)
- Jeep Cherokee (FWD)
- Audi Q5
- Dodge Durango (FWD)
- Chevrolet Silverado C15 (2WD)
- Ram 1500 (2WD)
- Ford F-150 (2WD)
- GMC Sierra C15 (2WD)
The Toyota Prius is one of the most recognized hybrid vehicles on the road today, but there are some larger hybrid vehicles to choose from as well. Both hybrids and plug-in hybrids run on an internal combustion engine and electric motors. Hybrids receive partial power from gasoline while the other half is through a battery-powered electric motor. The main benefit is greatly reduced fuel consumption, especially in urban driving. Unlike smaller cars, there's currently a relatively limited selection of hybrid pickups and trucks. General Motors no longer sells its Chevrolet Silverado 1500 and GMC Sierra 1500 hybrids — once some of the most viable alternative-fuel truck options on the market. Today's larger hybrid vehicles are mostly found in the SUV category, with popular models including the Toyota Highlander, Lexus RX, Volkswagen Touareg, and Subaru XV Crosstrek hybrids.
Dimethyl Ether (DME)
Alternative-fuel fans — and California-state residents — would be remiss to overlook dimethyl ether (DME). California has already approved DME for use as vehicle fuel, as the low carbon fuel meets state environmental standards for compliance and industry standards for performance. This clean and colorless gas is easy to liquefy and transport, meets strict emissions standards and industry-standard performance requirements, and comes from a number of renewable materials, including waste, biomass, and fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas. According to Kristin Macey, director of the Division of Measurement Standards at the California Department of Food and Agriculture, DME will help to “reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, improve air quality, and lead to a positive impact on California and the environment.”
The clean-burning fuel is particularly enticing to heavy-duty truck manufacturers such as Oberon and Volvo, both of which continue to explore alternative-fuel options. Oberon cites DME's overall affordability, quiet combustion, and high cetane number as enticing reasons to focus on its value as a viable alternative to diesel and other types of fuel.
Trucks have previously lagged behind cars when it comes to using alternative-fuel sources, but increasing consumer demand and dwindling natural resources is putting more pressure on manufacturers than ever before. One area of focus is on hybrid trucks that can greatly reduce fuel consumption without compromising performance. According to greencarreports.com, VIA Motors Inc., a key plug-in hybrid pickup assembler, plans to sell 50,000 vehicles by 2018. The company typically purchases Chevrolet Silverado pickup trucks and outfits them with dual electric motors and a lithium ion battery pack for up to 40 miles of power when fully charged. It's a small name in a world of automotive giants, but it's companies such as VIA that can call attention to viable alternative fuel options in the near future.