Heavy Trucks Lead Fuel Economy and Technology Research

September 12, 2018 by Alan Adler, @AlanAdler

After years of dedicating research money to help passenger cars run farther on a gallon of gasoline, the federal government and other groups are targeting commercial vehicles.

“We have made a conscious decision to increase our focus on the medium- and heavy-duty truck market,” Michael Berube, director of the U.S. Department of Energy Vehicle Technologies Office, told Trucks.com.

Michael Berube

Michael Berube

The DOE reviewed data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration and found gasoline demand had peaked. Diesel fuel, jet fuel and bunker fuel used in cargo ships is rising and is expected to keep going up for 30 to 40 years. The number of cars will outnumber commercial trucks for many years. But the nation’s truck fleets cover 3.1 trillion miles and carry 11 billion tons of freight a year.

“The energy used in trucks is substantial and is forecast to grow over time,” Berube said. About $20 million of $80 million in DOE transportation research grants for 2018 went to truck projects.

Many truck efficiency-focused programs have been around for a decade or longer but operated with little attention.

Berube said an additional $32 million at national laboratories was dedicated to truck research. One project, at the Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago, is creating a dynamic road guide to help predict and avoid traffic congestion in the city, a major trucking feeder hub.

The Super Truck II program is a separate $160-million, five-year effort focused on doubling the amount of freight a heavy-duty truck can haul on a gallon of fuel. Participants include truck and tire manufacturers, trailer builders, fuel system designers and other specialists. The initial five-year Super Truck I effort invested $258 million and led to numerous technological improvements to current heavy-duty trucks before closing in 2016.

A third program, the DOE’s nearly 20-year-old 21st Century Truck Partnership, gathers researchers from industry, national labs and non-government organizations. The DOE created four teams — internal combustion powertrains, electrified powertrains, efficient operations and safety — to steer the partnership.

“From a technology point of view, the new and emerging technologies have big implications in trucking,” Berube said at a recent briefing by engineers at the U.S. Army’s Tank, Automotive Research Development and Engineering Center in Warren, Mich. He said the DOE would soon announce details of a plan to triple the use of the nation’s abundant natural gas supply in trucks.

Substituting natural gas for diesel is also a focus of the nonprofit Calstart, whose 190 members support high-tech clean transportation. Calstart works with the California Air Resources Board to promote $8.5 million in vouchers to help fleets pay for natural gas fuel systems.

Calstart on Tuesday announced the Global Commercial Vehicle Drive-to-Zero Pledge. Using a “beachhead” strategy, Drive-to-Zero aims to advance the zero-emission commercial technology in eight market segments for medium- and heavy-duty trucks such as North America, China, India and parts of Europe.

“What this does is accelerate the rate of progress globally,” Calstart Chief Executive John Boesel told Trucks.com. “By sharing information across these geographic regions, we will all learn faster. Each country and state or city will have its own tools to advance the zero-emission commercial vehicle market.”

There is no cookie-cutter approach. Some countries like Mexico could ban trucks with internal combustion engines from certain parts of a city.

“Exclusion zones will be helpful for improving air quality in one area,” Boesel said. “They also will force technology policy.”

Early success for the beachhead program would be having zero-emission technology available for 30 percent of trucks by 2025.

Less programmatic efforts are making an impact too. The North American Council for Fuel Efficiency found the average U.S. truck fleet posted 5.91 mpg in 2017. But 20 major North American fleets that adopted off-the-shelf fuel-saving products averaged 7.28 mpg. That saved fleets money and reduced the environmental impact of those trucks. Overall adoption of the 85 technologies studied in the NACFE report rate grew from 17 percent in 2003 to 44 percent in 2017.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency through its public-private SmartWay program identifies equipment to improve aerodynamic efficiency for truck trailers. That research helps fleets decide what add-ons, such as side skirts and fairings, would have the fastest return on investment.

The many initiatives to improve truck fuel efficiency raises the question of duplicated efforts. Neither Berube nor Boesel thinks that is happening.

“A lot of people are taking different approaches,” Boesel said. “There is a lot of work to do to meet the mandates of fleets competing on a global basis.”

Read Next: Calstart — Easing the Way to Cleaner Trucking

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