Trucking Firms Try to Keep Up With Fuel-Efficiency Drive

President Obama’s push for higher fuel-efficiency standards for diesel-guzzling, long-haul trucks may be laudable, but is probably unachievable by the target date without more development of key technologies, say analysts and industry representatives.

Seth Joel | Getty Images

“We do support this (effort) but we think it remains to be seen,” says Clayton Boyce, vice president of public affairs for the American Trucking Association.

The president’s plan—which would begin with the imposition of higher standards in 2014—is aimed at a major source of fuel consumption.

Transport trucks make up less than 5 percent of all vehicles on U.S. highways, but consume more than 20 percent of transportation fuels, according to environmental non-profit group the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“The 18-wheeler, or freight movement market in general, is definitely the holy grail," when it comes to potential energy savings, says Darren Seed, vice president for investor relations at truck engine manufacturer WestportInnovations.

The President would like to see long-haul-trucking, fuel-efficiency jump by 50% within 20 years, but Boyce says that's "going to be difficult" because effective, inexpensive money-saving "technologies are already in use."

These tend to focus on reducing the weight and drag of the average truck.

Many firms are designing and installing fairings around trailers and under truck cabs to cut down on wind resistance. Since these are usually simple add-on components, the cost tends to be very low.

“(For) bang for the buck, we—as well as our competitors—have been focused on improving the aerodynamics of our trucks,” says Steve Schrier, communications manager at truck-maker Navistar .

Reducing rolling friction can also save energy. Tire-maker Michelin makes a double-wide truck tire that replaces two regular-width tires, turning 18-wheelers into 10-wheelers.

Fewer tires mean less resistance, plus these tires also save over 600 pounds of extra rubber per truck. Toting less weight can save up to 10 percent on fuel costs, the firm claims.

Other efforts include battery-powered auxiliary power units—which allow trucks to idle without burning diesel—and passenger-car-like hybrid technologies.

Aside from hybrids, all of these efficiency efforts are relatively inexpensive, with a return on investment possible in less than three years.

But any significant additional advances in efficiency could mean tinkering with the trucking fleet’s diesel diet, and that can be tough, since diesel is such an energy-rich, safe-to-carry fuel.

Natural gas could be one answer. Westport Innovations Inc. has a line of engines to bridge the fuel gap from present-day diesel to a natural gas future.

Their Westport HD engines use natural gas blended with diesel to achieve better fuel efficiency at a lower operational cost.

Natural gas engines cost about $50,000 more than conventional ones, adding to the already sizable cost of the typical heavy truck ($110,000 to $150,000).

But with a $32,000-tax credit and the lower cost of natural gas, the gap shrinks considerable.

But with natural gas at $1.50 per equivalent gallon to diesel—currently around $2.50 per gallon—Westport’s Seed says the payback time can be short. Tax credits also help soften the sticker shock.

The Carbon Challenge: A CNBC Special Report
The Carbon Challenge: A CNBC Special Report

If an average truck consumes 15,000 gallons of fuel annually, the investment in natural gas engines can pay for themselves in less than 2 years.

“You have a truck fleet that’s saving $10,000 per truck per year,” says Westport’s Seed. “That’s huge.”

Westport also has a cheaper engine for smaller trucks and buses, and a $30,000 model used by garbage trucks. Waste Management is one of the firm’s biggest clients.

One big drawback, however, is a lack of natural gas fueling stations.

Unlike trucks or buses that return to a central depot at night, where they are refueled, the long-hail trucking business would need a national-network.

Compressed or liquid natural gas facilities require special equipment, and can cost $450,000 to $750,000 to install.

If few trucks have natural gas engines, few truck stop owners will want to invest in natural gas facilities, and vice versa.

That conundrum is unlikely to be the only obstacle.

If new fuel-efficiency rules require higher upfront costs for trucks with less-proven technologies, there could a run on model year 2013, as fleet owners replace trucks while still under the existing standards.

Previous regulatory requirements on trucking emissions in effect in the 2004 and 2007 model years caused significant “prebuys” in 2003 and 2006, says Boyce. “Companies bought a little earlier than planned in order to get the last of the older models,” he says.

In the end, it’s always about the return on investment, says Boyce. “We’re all in favor, but we just want people to recognize there are obstacles."