Opinion

Hedging Our Bets

hedging our bets

When looking at the future of truck technology over the medium-term, the trucking industry will have to start hedging our bets as each of the proposed new technologies comes on stream and starts to function in the real world.

When the diesel engine was developed over 100 years ago it’s effectiveness as a method of propulsion for the transportation of freight meant that over the early part of the 20th century more and more went over to diesel power, and diesel was king.

In the next 20 or so years that king is going to be deposed, one way or another. The move across to zero carbon emission road transport does mean that the most efficient way of transporting freight which we have today is going to be phased out, due to the high levels of carbon dioxide pumped out through the exhaust on millions of trucks.

Coming up with an alternative it’s not quite so easy. There will be no number one choice for road transport and there are likely to be variations between countries and transport sectors, as to which of the new technologies proves to be the most effective.

The simplest solution, electric trucks is an effective alternative to diesel power, but not in all cases. It will be the dominant technology adopted in cities and for tasks where relatively small daily distances are covered, but it will not be a ‘one solution fixes all’ situation.

When travelling longer distances and with heavy masses, the limitations of the electric only technology, basically range, mean that other technologies are likely to predominate in this sector of the industry.

This is where it starts to become complicated because instead of having a single solution for road transport, we are likely to end up with at least two and maybe three or four different possible solutions to moving freight from A to B, depending on distance travelled and location of that travel.

Using a hydrogen fuel cell to generate electricity to turn the wheels of a truck is making quite fast progress in the development programs of many truck manufacturers. These fuel cell trucks will share a good proportion of common technology with the electric trucks, but the hydrogen storage possibilities will mean that they should be able to manage higher ranges than electric only.

Then the possibility of developing an internal combustion engine, very exciting for those of us who grew up in a trucking world dominated by diesel, will mean keeping much of the structure of a truck the same as it is now, just replacing the diesel engine with a hydrogen engine. There is also a lot of activity amongst engine makers in developing, a hydrogen ICE solution.

Then the other possibility is the development of a fuel industry which manufactures hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO)which can be used as a direct substitute for diesel in an engine while substantially reducing the carbon emissions of that truck.

Over the next 20 years we are going to be presented with these four choices, and at this point in time people buying a truck cannot be sure that any one of these technologies is going to be the ideal solution. At the moment millions of dollars of development money are being poured into all four of these possibilities but there will be no clear winner at the end of the day. 

Yes, the cities of Australia will have electric trucks running around doing most of the work over short distances. Over longer distances the fuel cell, the hydrogen engine and HVO may all find a niche in which they are the most effective.

With all of these different options not only being available but also needed, the life of a trucking operator is going to become more complicated. Where the normal transport yard would just have a large diesel tank in the corner to refill the trucks, in 20 years time you may find that a truck yard would need to be able to supply the trucks with electric charging, hydrogen in gas or liquid form as well as HVO in order to cover all the bases.

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