Latest Developments Aimed at Improving Truck Operating Costs

Stephen DeAngelis

March 29, 2012

In a couple of previous posts [Reducing the Operating Costs of Truck Transportation and Update: Reducing the Operating Costs of Truck Transportation], I discussed a number of efforts aimed at reducing truck operating costs. Among those efforts were hybrid tractors, more aerodynamic designs, weight reduction efforts, collapsible containers, and use of natural gas instead of diesel. With diesel prices again headed upward, some people are renewing calls for increased use of natural gas because a glut of natural gas has actually suppressed the price of that resource. Alex Kowalski reports, “A Made-in-America fuel source may soon be moving tractor-trailers across the U.S. Carriers like Ryder System Inc. are buying long-haul trucks that run on natural gas, around $1.50 a gallon cheaper than diesel.” [“Trucks Run on U.S. Natural Gas in Pickens-Led Clean Energy Drive: Freight,” Bloomberg, 29 February 2012] Kowalski continues:

“As adoption grows, Clean Energy Fuels Corp. and Westport Innovations Inc. plan to profit from a marriage of technology and domestic energy that has the political blessing of President Barack Obama and the financial backing of T. Boone Pickens. Using natural gas could cut fuel costs by more than $20,000 for a truck traveling a typical long-haul distance of 100,000 miles (161,000 kilometers) a year, according to JMP Securities LLC’s Shawn Severson. Shares in Clean Energy and Westport are up at least 30 percent since the end of last year. ‘Natural gas is green in terms of the environment, but the real green is in the money,’ said Severson, a San Francisco-based clean-technology analyst. ‘If you do not have this fuel in your fleet for whatever percentage is appropriate, you’re going to be at an economic disadvantage.’ Clean Energy is tackling the so-called chicken-or-egg problem by building the fueling depots that natural gas-powered fleets require before they can proliferate. Such a network sets in motion part of a four-year-old plan by Pickens aimed at cutting the nation’s fuel costs, reducing reliance on overseas energy and generating jobs.”

As I pointed out in the first my posts cited above, switching to natural gas is not as straight forward as it may seem. Last year Jeffrey Ball reported, “For years, environmentalists have lobbied for taxpayer subsidies for natural-gas cars and trucks, arguing the fuel burns cleaner than gasoline or diesel. They have had limited success—notably in smoggy Southern California—getting regulators to prod bus and trash-truck operators, owned or contracted largely by municipalities, to make the change. Often, buyers of these natural-gas trucks have received government subsidies that have helped defray the higher purchase price.” [“Natural-Gas Trucks Face Long Haul,” Wall Street Journal, 17 May 2011] As I noted in my earlier post, “Clearly, the political climate has turned against government subsidies. If natural gas-powered tractors are going to become a significant portion of the America’s truck fleet, they will have to join the fleet on merit not subsidies.” Ball continued:

“If America could affordably manufacture natural-gas trucks and build enough fueling stations to keep them on the road, the economy could shave billions of dollars a year in imported-fuel bills, backers of the technology say. But that is a big if. Trucks configured to burn natural gas cost more than trucks that run on diesel. They need modified engines and bigger and stronger fuel tanks. How much more they cost differs wildly depending on the type of truck. … United Parcel Service Inc., which runs one of the country’s biggest truck fleets, pays about $95,000 for an average long-haul ‘tractor’—the front part of the 18-wheeler, housing the engine and driver. It recently ordered 48 natural-gas versions at a cost of $195,000 apiece—about double the cost of a diesel model, said Mike Britt, UPS’s director of engineering and maintenance. … They are ‘just about being hand-built, much like a Rolls Royce,’ Mr. Britt said. Ramping up assembly lines to build them at volume, he thinks, could ‘lower the price dramatically.'”

Ball reports that “UPS bought its natural-gas trucks only after getting $4 million in federal stimulus money to help defray the cost. … UPS won’t buy more natural-gas trucks unless the government forks over additional subsidies.” He claims that “the experience of other countries suggests natural-gas vehicles sputter without long-running government aid.” Kowalski reports:

“Ryder, United Parcel Service Inc. and Dillon Transport Inc. are among those purchasing the vehicles. Dillon began moving Owens Corning Inc. freight last month using LNG trucks. The Burr Ridge, Illinois-based carrier refills 14 trucks at a Clean Energy station along Irving Boulevard in Dallas slated to open for public use in May. ‘Nobody can beat us on rates right now if we have the gas component in place,’ said founder Jeff Dillon, who started the business 32 years ago with one truck and now owns 350. ‘We’ve probably got about a three-year window to have the advantage.'”

Kowalski doesn’t note whether Dillon’s truck purchases are government subsidized. He does state this:

“Government incentives would help speed adoption. Obama has called for offering tax incentives to induce companies to buy more vehicles, working with industry to build fueling corridors and introducing a competition to encourage research. … Last April, lawmakers proposed the NAT GAS Act, which included a tax credit for as much as 80 percent of a vehicle’s incremental cost, an excise tax credit for fuel suppliers and a 50 percent tax credit for building a station. To help pay for it and garner support, a revised Senate bill in November included the phase-in of a user fee in 2014 that would rise from $0.025 to $0.125 per gasoline gallon equivalent by 2022. While Pickens said he expects supporting legislation to eventually pass, the adoption of natural gas will occur without government incentives because the savings can pay back the extra cost of new equipment within a year or two, he said. ‘It’s going to take off because of the price,’ Pickens said. ‘You can get there quicker if you get Washington to give some help on direction, but that isn’t necessary.'”

The business case outlined by Pickens has won over at least one skeptic, Dan Gilmore, Editor-in-Chief of Supply Chain Digest. He writes, “After some minor initial doubts, I am absolutely now convinced we can get out of this mess for good with a fairly simple and absolutely doable solution: Rapid adoption of natural gas-based trucks, and likely after that nat gas-based cars.” [“Higher Oil and Diesel Prices – the Answer is Here,” 24 February 2012] He notes, “We have enough natural gas to last for hundreds of years.” More importantly, Gilmore goes on discuss the business case that can be made for switching to natural gas. Here are the points he makes:

“– There are only two real issues with converting the nation’s trucking fleet to natural gas usage: (1) the additional cost truck manufacturers (and hence carriers and private fleets) would bear to buy engines that run on natural gas; (2) A chicken and egg thing between the rollout of nat gas trucks and filling stations that can provide the fuel they need to keep moving. When Pickens rolled out his plan in 2008, the difference in tractor costs between diesel and nat gas was about $65,000,which he wanted to return to companies buying natural gas tractors as a tax credit. Today, the premium for a nat gas truck is just $35,000 – and falling. It probably can’t get below $10-15,000 or so due to some differences in the fuel delivery system, but at that delta it becomes almost irrelevant given the benefits.

“– Right now, natural gas is very cheap. In November, the estimate was that the equivalent difference for operating a Class 8 truck on natural gas versus diesel fuel was a savings of at least $1.50 per equivalent gallon. That conveniently enough would deliver about a one year payback for the extra $35,000 cost for the natural gas engines ($1.50 per gallon times the 20,000 gallons the average truck uses per year). Since then, nat gas prices are about the same, while diesel prices have obviously risen.

“– Natural gas reduces equivalent greenhouse gas emissions by about 30%.

“– About one-third of oil use in the US is for diesel used in freight movement.”

Gilmore concludes, “To me, it’s clear. The solution is here. And it is going to happen, I am absolutely convinced, barring some near suicidal barriers put on the move to natural gas trucks based on totally misplaced environmental concerns or some tsunami of oil industry money and pressure. The only question is how fast.” With all this talk about fuel, we shouldn’t forget that innovators are also working on design improvements, including engine design. One new engine design has been created by Dr. Herbert Hüttlin and he calls it the Kugelmotor. [“The spherical genius of the Hüttlin Kugelmotor,” by Vincent Rice, Gizmag, 22 September 2011] Rice reports:

“After twenty years and three design iterations the good doctor, with help from Freiburg University, has created a compact spherical motor/generator combination that is radically different from the traditional in-line combustion engine with significantly fewer moving parts. Its mode of operation is simple but hard to describe, the video at the bottom should help to make it clear. Two opposing curved twin-piston heads rock on the same bearing. When two heads are pushed apart the opposing pistons are pushed together. Because this is four-stroke engine the cycle will be induction (apart), compression (together), combustion (apart) and exhaust (together). This obviously has the effect of rocking the cylinder heads back and forth. Here’s the genius bit. On the top of each of the four piston heads is a large titanium ball bearing that runs in a channel that is circular in one axis and a sine wave in the other. The channel completely encompasses the pistons and their rocking causes them to rotate on an axis perpendicular to their bearing axis by ‘swimming’ along the channel. Genius bit #2. The ball-bearing guide channel is fixed to one side of the spherical aluminum housing whilst on the other side a permanent magnet ring is attached to the rotation axis of the cylinders. Fixed to the inside surface of the enclosing sphere is a ring of electromagnetic coils and the interaction with the spinning magnet causes the generation of electricity. Genius bit #3. With the principal ‘kinematics’ proven and working, three different variations can be created with simple design changes. The first is the basic generator that produces electricity from the combustion engine as described above. There’s also a hybrid form that takes a drive shaft off the rotating pistons for traditional mechanical drive (plus the electricity generation). However the combustion pistons can be disengaged and drive reversed back to the engine (under braking for instance) to rotate the coils and generate electricity, or indeed the electrical flow reversed and the coils become an electric motor producing drive. There is a third variation where the pistons do not rotate but the guide channel is driven around them by the motor coils causing them to rock and become a compressor/pump. It’s the simplicity yet ingeniousness and versatility of the arrangement that suggests the Kugelmotor (sphere-engine) has great potential longevity.”

Even if it turns out that the Kugelmotor can’t be scaled to drive big rigs, you have to admit it’s a clever design. Another new engine design runs on air — really! “The Dearman engine operates by injecting cryogenic (liquid) air into ambient heat inside the engine to produce high pressure gas that drives the engine – the exhaust emits cold air. It’s cheaper to build than battery electric or fuel cell technology, with excellent energy density, fast refuelling and no range anxiety.” [“Another zero-emissions powerplant emerges – the Dearman Engine runs on liquid air,” by Jack Martin, Gizmag, 24 January 2012] Martin continues:

“Using cryogenic liquids as the energy carrier makes a lot of sense, most importantly because the energy density of liquid air compares favourably to the only two current technologies (Nitrogen and batteries) in contention for powering the zero-emission engines that will be used in subsequent generation automobiles, ships, forklifts, motorcycles, buses, trucks, mining equipment, through to certain classes of gensets. Convenience (aka very fast re-fuelling times) is likely to be the other big selling point in comparison with the other zero emission technologies. Air is superabundant and cryogenic liquids are already produced and distributed in huge volumes in all countries, making the necessary supporting infrastructure for Dearman engine introduction inexpensive. Liquid air is a low-risk energy source – it is stored at low pressure and has no combustion risk. Whatsmore, the insulated tank used for is storage is cheaper to produce than re-enforced high-pressure vessels and the marginal cost of additional energy storage is very low – just increase the tank size.”

Neither of the engine designs discussed above are ready for prime time. But there are other, more mundane, design improvements that promise to help reduce fuel consumption regardless of what that fuel is. For example, a gadget called “The TrailerTail” has been undergoing tests in Europe. According to Brian Straight, managing editor of Fleet Owner, “ATDynamics and TNT Express, combined with European aerodynamics company Ephicas, have completed a five-month test on ATDynamics’ TrailerTail aerodynamic device, achieving 6% in fuel savings.” [“TNT completes testing of TrailerTail,” 2 February 2012] An Active Prediction system being tested by Scania also holds promise. [“Scania Active Prediction system alters speed based on topography to save fuel,” by Chris Weiss, Gizmag, 17 December 2011] Weiss reports, “The Scania system offers the most benefits on undulating terrain, since a flat drive wouldn’t require making adjustments to speed. Volkswagen, [which owns Scania], estimates that it can provide up to a 3 percent fuel savings when compared to a regular cruise control system.” At a truck show last November, Mercedes revealed a tractor trailer concept involving its “Actros” tractor and its “Aero Trailer.” [“Mercedes Benz showcases its Aero Trailer concept in Belgium,” by Vincent Rice, Gizmag, 30 November 2011] Rice reports, “In total, Mercedes claims an additional 18 percent wind resistance reduction in the tractor-trailer combo, which should equate to a five percent reduction in fuel use. For the average year of a busy trailer, that represents 2,000 liters (530 US gallons) of fuel and an astonishing 5 tons (4.5 tonnes) of CO2.”

Clearly, the trucking industry understands that its future depends on keeping fuel costs down. But, as you can see, it’s not resting on its laurels. Every possible avenue is being pursued to ensure that the future of trucking is on the right road.