Get in on trucking fuel revolution early, experts urge

sustainability report

  • Fleets should educate themselves about the array of fuel alternatives as the industry transitions away from diesel, an expert panel said on Tuesday.
  • A “State of Sustainable Fleets” report provides insights into clean truck sales trends, vehicle development timelines, infrastructure and fuel costs.
  • A century ago, four out of 10 vehicles were powered by steam, four out of 10 were electric and only two were gas, said Georgia Delpiano, vice president of fleet solutions for Shell Oil Co. “So whoever bet on steam did not make a good choice.”  

While the variety of clean fuel options on the market can seem overwhelming or cost-prohibitive, trucking fleets should educate themselves now about the array of alternatives as the industry continues its inevitable transition away from diesel, an expert panel said on Tuesday.

“The best way to get through the transition is to be part of it,” said Georgia Delpiano, vice president of fleet solutions for Shell Oil Co.

Delpiano was one of several industry experts who participated in a panel discussion tied to the launch of a report providing an overview of the most common sustainable fuel platforms for medium- and heavy-duty commercial vehicles.

Sponsored by Shell, Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA) and Penske Transportation Solutions, the “State of Sustainable Fleets” report, released on Tuesday, includes insights into sales trends, vehicle development timelines, infrastructure and fuel costs, and the growing adoption of renewable fuels.  

The analysis was written by green vehicle consultancy Gladstein, Neandross, and Associates (GNA) and covers four categories of fuel options: natural gas, propane, battery electric and hydrogen fuel cells. It also summarizes sustainability trends in “baseline technologies” — gas and diesel — and compares the new green technologies to those baseline fuels.

“It’s a comparison against the incumbents,” said Erik Neandross, CEO of GNA.

Education, education, education

Panelists advised fleets interested in low or zero-emission technologies to immerse themselves in the theory and practice of the new vehicle platforms.

“If we were teaching a class on alternative fuels and adoption, there would be two main pieces of that class: Get yourself educated and then develop your strategy off of that,” said Drew Cullen, senior vice president of fuels and facilities at Penske Truck Leasing.

Fleets should talk to partners and customers, then drive the trucks, and get a feel for weight, range and maintenance issues — “all the different pieces that go into evaluating a vehicle and whether it’s a good fit for your operations.”

“It’s OK if that particular alternative fuel isn’t really a good fit for your fleet,” Cullen said. He recommended carriers understand the levers they need to pull in order to meet their economic and environmental objectives, “and when those levers get to the spot where it makes sense, that’s where you pull the trigger to implement that particular technology or sustainable fleet item.”

The trucker’s guide to clean fuels

Much of the information in the State of Sustainable Fleets report has appeared in other case studies on zero- or low-emissions trucking, and its overarching conclusion will be familiar to those who follow the industry: Trucking companies are stepping up adoption of alternative fuel vehicles, but upfront costs and lack of infrastructure remain barriers to adoption.

What distinguishes the latest contribution to the clean trucking literature is its comprehensive and technology-neutral approach. The 141-page document features interviews, surveys and third-party research, and includes detailed data from original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and fleets such as the logistics giant UPS and Waste Management that have real-world experience deploying clean technologies.  

DTNA and Penske are running electric truck demonstration projects in Southern California and expect to bring battery electric vehicles to market by 2023, said Brian Cota, DTNA’s vice president of sales. 

Although the projects have run into limitations from a range perspective, the technology will continue to improve over the next five years, Cota said, when the technology may be a better fit for fleets requiring longer haul capabilities. “Our mission is to work with customers,” he said, “do some route planning and then we can help educate them as to what technology is appropriate for their application.”

Smaller, more resource-constrained carriers shouldn’t feel excluded from this process, panelists said. Fleets with fewer than 10 trucks can and should participate in the fuel transition by taking advantage of government grants and incentives, and recognizing that they don’t need to transition all of their vehicles at the same time.

Environmental benefits drive investment

One of the key takeaways from the report is that sustainability is “a top motivator” for companies investing in clean trucking platforms.

In Europe customers are asking fleets to select clean fuel platforms to help meet net-zero-emission objectives, Delpiano said, and he expects similar activity to grow in the U.S. as customers and “customers of customers” put pressure on freight companies “and therefore drive change.”

A cautionary tale

Shell is investing in multiple clean fuels — hydrogen, renewable natural gas —  because although some of the alternatives compete with one another “most are complimentary and the only way to reduce cost of ownership is to have enough scale,” Delpiano added.

But he acknowledged the current transition away from diesel poses a dilemma for all industry stakeholders.

A century ago, four out of 10 vehicles were powered by steam, four out of 10 were electric and only two were gas, he observed. “So whoever bet on steam did not make a good choice.”  

This article has been updated.

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