Meeting trucking industry demands

Meeting trucking industry demands

North American Truck executives talk about government mandates and the impact on future vehicles.

The trucking industry has, for more than a dozen years, considered 2010 to be the proverbial “big enchilada” with regard to governmentally-mandated emissions rules. For companies meeting the four significant environmental hurdles since 1998, this year was thought to be the point after which regulatory-driven boom-bust cycles ended and customer fears of new technology abated.

The federal government, however, has now announced new and different goals for truck and engine makers: improved fuel economy and, as a corollary, lower CO2 levels.

In mid-May, the Obama administration announced a presidential memorandum to raise mileage standards for medium- and heavy-duty trucks, starting with model year 2017. The announcement, coinciding with a Rose Garden signing ceremony, was attended by several leading truck manufacturing executives, including Denny Slagle, president and CEO of North American Trucks, the corporate overlord of both Mack Trucks and Volvo Trucks North America.

The following week, Volvo held a previously planned press event that included two question-and-answer sessions—both of which, understandably, revolved around the company’s initial views of the recent governmental developments. Tony Greszler, vice president of engineering for Volvo Powertrain, led the first session. Slagle led the second. Here is some of what they said:

Q: What is Volvo’s response to the Obama administration’s call for higher fuel economy standards for medium and heavy trucks?

Greszler: “Our reaction is one of caution. We’ve some preliminary indication of what their expectations are, but we haven’t seen any context, and that’s crucial, given the variables related to [the diversity of applications in which trucks are used]. So, it could be very feasible or very difficult.”

Q: Are there any regulators who understand trucks enough to appreciate the differences between them?

Greszler: “We hope so.”

Q: Are the timetables for the proposed fuel efficiency regulations fair?

Greszler: “They’re only fair if we’re allowed to use technologies that are already developed. There’s no time to develop something new. If we can sell more trucks with SmartWay-type features and meet the standards, we’re already there. If we have to design new engines and new cabs, it’s out of the question. And that’s a critical point as we move to the next phase of these talks.”

Q: What percentage improvement is possible from just tweaking existing technology?

Greszler:“We could probably squeeze 3% more from our engines: about 1% per year during the next three years. That’s feasible for some engines. The question is whether it’s feasible for an average of all engines. For example, what might work well in heavily loaded line-haul operation might not be appropriate for a regional or lightly loaded truck. A lot of the questions now surround the factors going into the averages that will be used. On the truck side, however, there are plenty of opportunities for improvement, particularly the trailers. There hasn’t been much done to trailers [since the 1950s], and that’s not something we control. However, that is part of the big picture that EPA is considering.”

Q: Is it possible that, in the coming years, heavy-duty trucks could achieve 10 miles per gallon?

Greszler: “That is conceivable if you have an absolutely aerodynamic trailer, the best possible tires, the best aerodynamics, a lot of new drivetrain technology and more. It’s unlikely to happen in the short term, though.”

Q: Where would the industry’s fuel economy be, had EPA not regulated emissions since the late 1990s?

Greszler: “We’ve actually calculated those numbers and determined that our engines, on average, would be about 10% more fuel efficient than they are now, had there been no NOx mandates.”

Q: The government is starting to look at CO2 regulations for trucks. Is there a way to dramatically cut these emissions?

Greszler: “Well, there are fuels that don’t emit CO2—hydrogen, for example—but it isn’t too practical at the moment. There is also bio-fuel, which takes CO2 out of the air then returns it after combustion, creating a neutral gain. So with really advanced bio fuels the net cycle can be near zero, based on some of the analysis that’s been done so far.”

Q: What’s going to happen with the government’s new emphasis on fuel efficiency?

Slagle: “We’ve spent somewhere around $500 million dollars [since 2007] to meet the 2010 emissions regulations. Frankly, we’d love to have a little breather now … Today, our engines are putting out near zero emissions. However, the times demand that we now focus on economy and CO2, and we’d rather be part of the process rather than find another mandate tossed in our lap. The document signed last week was good, but it’s still very conceptual. Where are we headed? I think we are going to start reducing greenhouse gases. But [we all agreed to] start with existing technologies. We think we [can meet the objectives] by just taking existing technologies a bit further.

“I think it’s fairly unadvisable to do anything other than what this document [currently requires]. We are already working hard to improve fuel efficiency, and the best way to reduce greenhouse gases is to reduce fuel consumption. The administration’s proposals aren’t terribly invasive to us because we already have a lot of good ideas on the drawing board, for the engine and chassis. We’ll need to stretch those [results] a little, but it’s not an unreasonable stretch.”

Q: Will these new efforts add a lot of costs to trucks in the future?

Slagle: “We hope not. We’d expect truckers to adopt these technologies to meet the emissions standards, but I don’t know if all of the [new objectives] can be met with aerodynamics and more efficient engines. Some might require different optional equipment that will now be made standard. That’s possible, but it’s too early to speculate.”

Q: Could the proposed regulations still be thrust on the industry?

Slagle: “I believe that common sense will prevail here. Today, after adding the cost of emissions technology, which ranges from $8,000 to $10,000, [future pricing must] find its way to [buyers], otherwise [we] can’t build these things nor hire people to screw them together. Eventually, the pricing must either be passed along or somehow erased through efficiency. And the industry has done a great job in increasing efficiency and absorbing some of the costs of the newest technology. If you look at the cost of building today’s trucks versus what has been pushed out to the market, the numbers are pretty impressive.”

Q: Do you think the administration’s goals might tie into a broader global fuel economy goal? If so, how would that affect Volvo?

Slagle: “We are a global company, and we’d love to see complete harmonization with regulations around the world. We’d be able to use scale to help absorb some of the costs of achieving greater efficiency. You can’t imagine the strain on our R&D budgets to build one technology for Europe, another for North America, yet another for Asia. A more uniform pattern of regulations makes sense, so maybe if we push hard enough, we’ll get it.”

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