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COMMENT: The truck industry needs to analyse the mixed messages from cheaper fuel

BY ALAN BUNTING. Regardless of fuel price, truck manufacturers are obliged to continue striving for greater fuel efficiency

For commercial vehicle operators, the reduction in petroleum-based fuel prices is unquestionably welcome. For many truck owners, especially those engaged in long-haul operations, fuel has for decades constituted the biggest single running cost item. In consequence the seemingly inexorable increases in diesel price, over more than 40 years since the first so-called ‘oil crisis’ of 1973, have provided added impetus to the competition between vehicle and engine manufacturers to improve fuel consumption.

Their efforts have been spectacularly successful. In Europe, one of today’s heavy-duty diesel-engined trucks, grossing 40 tonnes, consumes around 20% less fuel than even a 30-tonner from the mid-1970s. The universal adoption, first of turbocharging and then of intercooling, as well as progressively higher injection pressures and with electronics allowing more precise control of injection metering and timing, have cut fuel usage to a previously unimagined extent.

In Europe, one of today’s heavy-duty diesel-engined trucks, grossing 40 tonnes, consumes around 20% less fuel than even a 30-tonner from the mid-1970s

Over and above those high-tech powertrain advances, the unrelenting drive for fuel-saving has driven other vehicle enhancements. Improved aerodynamics are a notable example, where truck manufacturers have refined cab contours, and sales of add-on drag-reduction devices for bodywork and trailers have been correspondingly stimulated. Meanwhile, tyre manufacturers have striven to reduce rolling resistance without compromising grip or wear life.

During the last decade in particular, alternative fuels, notably natural gas (NG) and different bio-diesel formulations, have gained prominence in the drive not only to cut noxious emissions but with the potential also to achieve fuel-bill savings. It must be recognised, however, that, in many parts of the world, those alternatives to regular diesel result in fuel cost reductions only because of environmentally-motivated tax or duty level concessions.

Now, with the fall in crude oil and therefore diesel prices, new questions arise. Will the market pressure to contain fuel bills by either improving consumption or resorting to alternatives be eased? And will truck operators invest the money they save on fuel to bring forward vehicle replacements?

At the American Trucking Associations’ recent annual Technology & Maintenance Council meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, it was mooted that moves away from diesel to NG might be slowed by the latter fuel’s now diminished price advantage. Specifically, it was suggested that when diesel was priced at US$3.85 per gallon (US$1.02/litre), a 45% fuel price saving was made by switching to CNG; but with diesel dropping to about US$2.85 per gallon (75 cents/litre) the fuel bill reduction was only 25%.

Regardless of fuel price, manufacturers are obliged to continue striving for greater fuel efficiency

Payback time for a CNG-fuelled heavy-duty tractor costing US$65,000 more than a diesel equivalent – albeit with that on-cost reduced to typically US$40,000 because of different states’ incentives or grants – is clearly extended accordingly. Representatives of the NG supply industry at the TMC put on a brave face, obviously hoping for a recovery in regular diesel fuel prices sooner rather than later.

Most delegates at the Nashville meeting would have been aware, however, that legislated fuel consumption standards, closely linked to CO2 limits, are looming, both in North America and Europe. In consequence, regardless of fuel price, manufacturers are obliged to continue striving for greater fuel efficiency.

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The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Automotive World Ltd.

Alan Bunting has a background in engineering, and has been writing on commercial vehicle and powertrain related topics since the 1960s. He has been an Automotive World contributor since 1996.

The AutomotiveWorld.com Comment column is open to automotive industry decision makers and influencers. If you would like to contribute a Comment article, please contact editorial@automotiveworld.com

 

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