We Can’t Let The Last Gas & Diesel Truck Engines Be Super Dirty

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What should the last gas and diesel truck engines look like? Ideally, we should have already seen them, because most combustion engine development should be wrapped up by now. There’s really no future for internal combustion gas or diesel engines, at least in the long term. As electric car infrastructure expands to even cover rural areas well, battery packs get cheaper, and the reality of the climate emergency sets in for most people, transport is going to go electric.

But, we don’t live in that ideal world just yet. A recent piece by Steve Hanley here at CleanTechnica shows us that Nissan is going to cut internal combustion engine development — everywhere but the United States. Our habit of buying large vehicles to commute to the office drives the costs of going electric out of the price ranges we’re apparently willing to pay, so they’re planning on selling us gas and diesel truck engines for longer than anywhere else. (Editor’s note: that’s not necessarily the case — Nissan’s plans will see US-built ICE products exported throughout South and Central America, as well as Southeast Asia and Australia). Plus, the regulatory environment won’t get in the way of this, so they’re going for it.

On top of that, we have the problem of using pickup trucks to tow. I’ve run the numbers with apps like A Better Routeplanner, and it doesn’t look great, especially on rural routes in the United States. As the first electric pickup trucks start to hit the road, we’re seeing that they lose half of their range with a small 2,000 lb. trailer. Obviously a large triple-axle fifth-wheel camper with three king beds and more TV sets than you have at home is going to cut your range back even more, so the ranges I figured in my article are probably a bit optimistic. Testing using a Rivian to tow a vehicle bears this out, too. Even with a 200 kWh battery pack, trucks like the Cybertruck aren’t going to be great for that job.

Stellantis apparently ran all the numbers on this, and according to The Drive, it is doing what Nissan is doing. Upcoming Dodge pickups are going to have an optional range extender of some kind. Plus, they point out that Ford has a patent on a removable range extender that’s disguised as a toolbox in a truck’s bed. So, it’s not just Nissan going this direction. It’s an industry trend that we need to be not only aware of, but also try to steer toward better outcomes.

Unless something major changes, like self-propelled trailers, far cheaper batteries, and European-style regulations in the United States (cue Aerosmith), we’re stuck with more of an ICE future than we wanted. If we can’t prevent it from happening, we should probably at least try to influence the outcome to minimize harms.

So, What Should These Last Gas and Diesel Truck Engines Look Like?

nissan cummins diesel truck
Nissan Cummins Frontier Concept, 2015.

Unless we can work some sort of political and technological miracle, we’re probably stuck with a few more years of gas and diesel truck and car engines in the United States. Yes, that would be best avoided entirely, but it looks like that’s not happening.

With no resistance and no attempt to push things in better directions, expect non-hybrid drivetrains with either a turbocharged 4-cylinder or even V6 and V8 engines to continue. Absent some sort of hybrid system, expect these to get 10–15 MPG in city driving, just like they do today. Oh, we’ll complain about it, but if the only option we give them is to go full electric, they’ll sit that out entirely. If they sit that out, truck manufacturers will feel the need to use shared ICE and EV platforms that aren’t great for EVs. Badly-placed battery packs, ICE-first drivetrain layouts, and other things could cause the whole project of electric trucks to go off the rails.

If we don’t want that to happen, we need to come up with alternatives to steer the industry toward. Alternatives need to be:

  • Minimally polluting
  • Fit well in EV platforms so automakers can pursue EV-first strategies
  • Not be fake plugin-hybrids that people won’t really plug in and charge
  • Incorporate solar charging and other developing technologies

In sum, the ICE should play a supporting role in owning a truck, and not be the main actor.

My Recipe For Accomplishing This

To minimize pollution, we need to make these future trucks and SUVs plugin hybrids, but not bogus ones. They need to have enough electric range to cover nearly all unloaded driving. I’d put the minimum at 100 miles, but 150–200 would be better (and would be possible, as I’ll get to further down). That way, all local driving (loaded or unloaded), and most unloaded highway driving could happen with zero emissions. DC fast charging should be included to encourage the use of electric for this whenever possible.

To encourage driving on electric, tax credits and other incentives should be tied to electric driving. It wouldn’t be difficult to require the vehicles to keep track of how many electric miles are driven unloaded and calculate a percentage. The vehicle’s computer or the manufacturer’s web services should be able to produce reports that could be used to prove that unloaded gas-powered driving stays below a certain percentage. This way, people who just don’t bother to plug the truck in could forfeit any incentives and people who use it properly won’t miss out.

For those situations where batteries fall short, like some road trips, towing, and extreme off-road adventures, there should be a backup power source that doesn’t get in the way of the truck being an EV the rest of the time. This means that the gas engine should be compact, light, and able to be tucked up out of the way. The BMW i3 REx is a good example of how this could work, as is the upcoming Mazda MX-30 with its rotary range extender. By not being the dominant mechanical feature, there’s still room for a normal low-slung battery pack.

The key is that the engine should be small and compact. The i3 used a BMW motorcycle engine. The Mazda MX-30 uses a compact engine with no pistons at all. This means that instead of making a vehicle’s electrification the afterthought, we make the ICE range extender the afterthought. This keeps manufacturers from optimizing the vehicles for ICE. These last ICE engines shouldn’t get in the way of the future.

Future/Emerging  Technologies Should Also Be Considered

Another thing that’s very important is keeping these ICE and diesel truck engines from getting stuck in the past more than they already would be with a range extender that hopefully doesn’t see much use. The use of vehicle-mounted solar panels, trailer-mounted solar panels, improved battery packs, and other emerging technologies should be set up so that they can be easily integrated into the truck.

If we’re going to be stuck with ICE, we should at least minimize the impacts of these last ICE engines and maximize the cleantech benefits.

Featured image by Stellantis.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1770 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba