Clean Transport

Published on July 21st, 2014 | by Christopher DeMorro


By 2035, 1 in 7 Trucks Will Use Alternative Fuels

July 21st, 2014 by  

walmart-wave-truckWhile the race is on to build the next generation of clean consumer cars,efforts to reduce the emissions and improve the fuel economy of commercial trucks is starting to heat up as well. According to Navigant Research (via Autoblog Green), 1 in 7 commercial vehicles will be alt-fuel powered by 2035. But is that good enough?

The big winners are expected to be natural gas and plug-in hybrid vehicles, though diesel vehicles will still account for about 3 out of every 4 commercial vehicles on the road. But even the standard diesel trucks are making huge gains towards better fuel economy as private companies like WalMart seek ways to reduce transportation and fuel expenses with purpose-built hybrid trucks like the WAVE. Over the lifetime of a semi-truck, using CNG fuel can save as much as $150,000 per vehicle. WalMart employs some 6,000 trucks alone; now multiply those savings, and suddenly you’re looking at the next massive bonus for corporate executives!

Seriously though, it’s important to note that even a 1 MPG improvement in the fuel economy of a big rig can lead to massive cost and emissions reductions, which is why even the government is pushing for more stringent efficiency standards and improvements. With just small aerodynamic enhancements, the “SuperTruck” was able to achieve a 54% increase in fuel economy, which would mean millions of gallons of fuel saved annually. Still, I think this study is a bit pessimistic, and also ignores the possibility of a game-changing innovation or scenario (such as prohibitively-high fuel prices or a battery breakthrough).

What fuel do you think will dominate the trucking industry in the next two decades?

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About the Author

A writer and gearhead who loves all things automotive, from hybrids to HEMIs, can be found wrenching or writing- or else, he's running, because he's one of those crazy people who gets enjoyment from running insane distances.

  • Ronald Brakels

    The easiest current option is to use trains and or shipping instead of trucks. Unfortunately here in Australia many policy makers have confused the winning physics of trains with the inefficiency with which we have run them in the past. (A different railway gauge in each state to save state railways from any of that nasty competition stuff. Brilliant idea there past Australian rail dudes.) Australian shipping is slightly more CO2 intensive per tonne-kilometer than rail, but it’s close. Of course, some cities are closer by rail than by sea. But what determines what is used are loading and unloading costs which includes time.

  • Vensonata

    Battery trailer is easiest. Just swap out. The fact is an electric big rig with proper battery network would quickly price diesel unit out of the market…they would have to go electric because the bottom line for fuel and maintenance is low on electric. Also no more fouling the urban air with diesel and engine noise. There ought to be a law to run electric within city limits. Of course we could get serious and use electric trains which are about 8 times more efficient than rubber tires. Why don’t we? Teamsters union is powerful…a million unnecessary trucker’s out of work…go figure!

  • No way

    Here the heavy duty trucks will be probably be close to 100% fossil free by 2020 or so. Using mainly HVO (or other liquid fuels) derived from biomass.
    Hopefully the construction of electrifying the main highways has also started, probably using overhead cables with active current collectors. Which long distance buses also can use, for city buses and medium distance buses and light trucks I assume that batteries (big capacity or smaller with fast charging at stops) will be used.

  • Ross

    1 in 7 in 21 years time? Don’t make me laugh. It will be much higher.

    • No way

      The world is large. It’s not easy to change and replace everything everywhere. But I would assume and hope for higher numbers.

  • The fuel saving would be enormous if big box retailers didn’t sell so many things needing shipping from China and elsewhere. Ultimately, us humans didn’t buy so much crap. Top importers are Walmart, Sears, Home Depot, etc. Fun website on global transportation:

    Amazon is probably growing the fastests as far as shipping. It’s hard to tell since it uses contractors throughout most of its supply chain.

    Natural gas doesn’t do much for efficiency at this point. It’s purpose is to promote more fracking and domestic use – as a climate change fighter. With all the heavy crude from Alberta coming down, we’ll probably see more diesel. It’s not like Oil & Gas is in competition.

  • Curious

    Anyone have any idea of when the WAVE concept truck might actually enter a production run for real-life use?

    • Kate Perry

      Google is paying 80$ per>>CLICK NEXT TAB FOR MORE INFO AND

      • Matt

        Please ban this person

        • Bob_Wallace

          Done. Sorry, I was away from the web for a couple of days.

  • Steve Grinwis

    I did some basic math on this. There is enough room and cargo capacity to put 8000 lbs of batteries on a truck, once you strip away the engine and fuel tanks (note: WAG), which, with Today’s battery technology would equal about 340 kWh of energy storage. This should give a big rig about 300 km range? I think?

    That’s probably going to be annoyingly low for most truckers, who are used to 1300 km or higher ranges.

    With a standard 120 kW Tesla supercharger, this would then take roughly 3 hours to fill. To fill in 20 minutes like a Tesla to 80% charge, would require a 800 kW+ DC fast charger. Those are going to be some big honking cables… We’re talking 1300 amps at 600v. You could just stack to higher I think you’d need 4/0 cable, in which each conductor is approximately .5″ thick. Also: That inverter would really hum. 😀

    Realistically, I think they’d just drive higher voltages, up to the 3 kV range.

    It’d probably save a lot of money on fuel, but the initial investment would be pretty high, you’d need some incredibly stellar infrastructure.

    That being said: You have a 100 km short haul route? Super charger on either end would cut your fuel costs to zero, and adding $70k in batteries to a big rig isn’t that big of a deal… 😀

    For long haul… we’re going to need some better batteries.

    • JamesWimberley

      Interesting. I’ll take your word for it. I agree that for heavy, long-haul trucks, we will need better batteries. In ten years we will have these. Double today’s density, and range goes up to 600 km. That’s 8 hours, a reasonable working day for a trucker. I don’t know what the US rules are for rest periods. European rules (link), enforced by tachographs, lay down a maximum working day of 9 hours and a break of 45 minutes after at most 4.5 hours, which gives time for a recharge.

      • Steve Grinwis

        I believe you can work 10 – 12 hour days in Canada, provided you have x days of rest in between, and no more than x hours in a 5 day period, or something. It’s also possible to sustain 100 km/hr on most highways, so it might only be 6 hours of driving time.

        • Offgridman

          To Mr Wimberley also.
          Unfortunately in the US the change in rest regulations a few years back make it legal for a long haul trucker to make the trip from California to NY or Florida with just a single 4-6 hour rest break. Though a majority use two drivers and do the trip nonstop, there are still some pushing for retirement after twenty years and wanting all the money for themselves and to pay off their trucks that try it.
          Due to the fuel and tax subsidies for truckers Walmart and Amazon still find it cheaper to bring everything from China to the west coast and bring it to the rest of the country by truck rather than shipping to the east coast. So in my opinion these efficiency requirements for big rigs will just enforce this model. But it does keep a lot more people working in the transport industry that shipping to the east coast would reduce.
          Now I am well aware of all the supply problems for fuel cells until we have enough renewable energy to get the hydrogen from water. But it is in the big rigs and heavy construction equipment that has to run 10-12 hour days that could be a good balance against the giant battery packs needed to get the continuous runtime with fast refuel expected from the big engines in the US.

      • No way

        Selfdriving trucks will be on the roads in a massive scale long before 2035. There will be no truckers.

        • Ronald Brakels

          The capital costs of big rigs and the potential savings in improved efficiency means they will probably be among the first commercial applications of self driving technology. And as already mentioned the life of an internal combustion engine truck isn’t that long, so we’re not looking at a huge amount of time to change over.

          • No way

            When the time comes the change will be extremely fast. Once proven it would make economical sense to retire even a brand new truck straight away if it couldn’t be retrofitted.

            And Taxis will be the first cars to change to fully self driving technology for the same reason.

            It looks like it might be the Netherlands that will be first with self driving trucks on the public roads. An interesting project might be coming in cooperation with the Rotterdam port. Exciting times…

          • Ronald Brakels

            A self driving truck could save over a quarter of a million dollars in wages over a year in Australia, so provided the technology is less than a couple of million dollars a rig it will be cost effective to replace humans here. If the technology is $100,000 a truck a country would have to have very low wages to keep using human drivers. But self driving may come in stages though, with trucks permitted to self drive on highways but not in towns, so still some work for human drivers, at least at first.

          • What can i say!

            No need to worry about speed or red light tickets.

          • No way

            I forgot a comma. I meant once the technology is proven (safe and reliable). The economics of self driving trucks is a no-brainer so even if you have a brand new truck it will be so economically beneficial that you can just drive it straight to the scrap yard and get a self driving one.

    • Adam Grant

      A battery swapping scheme may be necessary to make this work until batteries improve.

      • Steve Grinwis

        It generally takes more than 20 minutes to unload a truck. If it can be plugged in for that time, i’m confident we can get the truck charged. I think the issue remains energy density and range. We need the 8000 lbs of batteries to carry us 800 – 1000 km instead of 300.

    • SirSparks

      Under normal conditions (ie. normal cooling and normal insulation) 4 O/D is good for just 225 amps per NEC.

      • Steve Grinwis

        You are correct sir.

        I went hunting for a spec for cables that can carry 1300 amps, and NEC doesn’t list one.

        There’s another issue here though. The cables on a supercharger aren’t 4/0, IIRC they’re much smaller. But they carry 300 amps. I think the NEC derates cables significantly because it assumes the cables are in walls, in conduit, or buried underground, instead of open to the air? Unclear.

        I think the only reasonable step here would be for the truck battery packs to run at substantially higher voltage though. If you can run at 1800v, you can charge at a more reasonable 450 amp, and get the size of the conductors down a bit.

        • SirSparks

          You are correct although “free air” ampacities are given in NEC tables even if somewhat hard to find. Also remember that the NEC was created by Insurance Companies wishing to reduce claims, ratings are therefore extremely conservative. Finally; standard wire insulation is rated only up to 1000 volts so it might be a good idea to limit the voltage to this.

          • Steve Grinwis

            That’s fair. Although! If you can define your own connector, you can define the insulation to be whatever you need! To what ever voltage

    • juxx0r

      How much energy does it take to lift an 80t truck up a half mile high hill and it’s goodnight batteries.

      • Steve Grinwis

        The batteries on the hypothetical truck we discussed would have nearly 1000 kW worth of power available for a few minutes at a time. This is about 1400 hp.

        Trust me, the batteries aren’t going to care about your little hill.

        Or, are you discussing the battery drain?

        In theory, our hypothetical 80 ton truck would use about 150 kWh to climb a half mile vertically, then get a lot of it back coming back the other way.

        Electrical motors in traction applications are typically 95% efficient, and Li-ion charge/ discharge efficiency is typically 90%, so you have a cycle efficiency of about 85%. This means your net energy expended to climb your half mile hill assuming you get to regen down the otherside, is about 22.5 kWh. This lets our hypothetical truck make roughly 8 half mile high hill climbs on a single charge, then still have 50% charge left after these to do 150 km of flat driving (but not enough in the pack to make another climb).

        If we get more advanced batteries that let us carry double the power for the same weight through some sort of innovation, that would give us 680 kWh worth of battery, and the ability to do 23 half mile high hill climbs before we wouldn’t have the juice to make it up another one, but we’d still have 150 km worth of flat driving available.

        That’s equivalent to running the Pike Peak run 12 times, then driving 150 km on a single charge.

        Totally solvable problem.

        • juxx0r

          I don’t share your faith, but i like your enthusiasm and i’d love to see it happen. I actually think big rigs will at best be ER-EVs for the foreseeable future, once we get off ICE.

  • JamesWimberley

    The Navigant study is limited to “medium and heavy-duty vehicles”. It’s not clear what the cutoff is (3 tonnes?), but it must leave out the far more numerous light commercial vehicles, delivery and service vans. We are already seeing product launches of pure evs in this sector from Nissan and BYD. The range limitation doesn’t matter for most users of such vehicles, so we should expect a much higher proportion of hybrids and evs.

    Heavy trucks have a shorter life than cars. This old study of heavy trucks from 1998 (link) gives mean annual mileage of 60,000 and lifetime mileage of 750,000, so a mean life of 12.5 years. The entire US heavy truck fleet will be replaced twice over by 2035. It’s surely improbable that there won’t be good new technology available by 2023.

    My guess is that in ten years pure ev trucks will be competitive up to 10 tonnes, drawing on the technology deployed at scale by then in buses (80 passengers = about 8 tonnes) and cars. There will be a comprehensive network of superchargers on all main highways in most countries, designed for cars but easily extendable to trucks. It would surprise me if fuel economy standards (and/or urban pollution and noise controls) don’t enforce a switch to hybrid powertrains for the remaining fleet of heavy trucks. The ev manufacturers will have the economies of scale, as the ICE ones shrink to a niche.

    • Matt

      All the more reason to raise their fuel standard now!

    • No way

      That is something that needs specification. I’m used to medium duty being >3,5 tonnes and heavy duty 16,5 tonnes – 80 tonnes, which is the absolute max on some public highways.

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