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Trucking is moving toward zero emissions (and three other takeaways from ACT Expo)

Jason Morgan is the editor of Fleet Equipment. He has more than 15 years of B2B journalism experience covering the likes of trucking and construction equipment, real estate, movies and craft beer industries.

Trucking sustainability starship hino hydrogen

You know what phrase you didn’t hear at ACT Expo this year? “Alternative fuels.” There was plenty of talk of battery electric, hydrogen fuel cell and natural gas, but OEMs, fleets, suppliers and “as-a-service” providers talked about those technologies as true pathways toward a zero-emissions future. They weren’t “alternatives;” they’re options. And the prevailing theme was that there’s no silver bullet for sustainability. The choice of power is going to be determined by application, location, partnerships and more, but the trucking industry is moving in the right decarbonization direction.

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After running from booth to booth, meeting to meeting, press conference to press conference, here are the three takeaways from the show that stuck with me, and what this all means for fleets that are foundational to our society.

1. Fleets should not go it alone

The road toward zero emissions is bigger than a single fleet, regardless of your size. Take battery electric trucks for example. True, it’s the fleet’s responsibility to acquire equipment and run that equipment efficiency, but it’s the OEM’s responsibility to manufacture and support their trucks. It’s the utility’s company to bring power to the fleet locations that need charging. It’s the charging equipment provider’s responsibility to ensure that the software supports the fleet’s charging strategy and equipment interpretability.

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The easy way to say it is: Other stakeholders have skin in the sustainability game. So when you, as a fleet, are looking down the barrel of a huge up-front capital expense to develop charging infrastructure at your locations to charge electric trucks, utility companies also want that and have a lot to gain from it (a good portion of your fuel budget, for example).

There is growing awareness that fleets need help subsidizing and underwriting that capital expense and fleet partners—from OEMs to charging infrastructure providers—are helping fleets connect with federal, state and local funding opportunities for electrification. Navistar, for example, during the launch of its International eMV medium-duty truck, noted that they will work hand-in-hand with fleets to earn grant money, going as far as to handling the grant writing and application responsibility for their customers.

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To echo one of the biggest points made by Jason Skoog, Peterbilt general manager and PACCAR vice president, during his keynote presentation: The No. 1 thing you should do as a fleet, even if you aren’t looking at adopting electric vehicles next year or the year after, is start talking with the sustainability partners you work with: OEMs, suppliers, utilities and beyond. And start today. Having the conversation is what will get the gears of sustainability moving.

2. Don’t dismiss diesel decarbonization efforts

Battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell trucks are exciting and clean energy technology on all fronts is advancing rapidly. BUT (yep, all caps, it’s that big of an issue) the current trucking world still runs on diesel. However, that doesn’t mean that fleets should shrug, bury their heads in the sand and say, “I’ll deal with electrification when it’s forced upon me.” Zero emissions isn’t like turning on a light switch. It’s going to be an evolution as we move toward 2050, and if you think about it, that’s only four or five new truck lifecycles for most fleets. The vast, vast majority of trucks fleets buy next year or the year after are going to be diesel—but, you’re still decarbonizing.

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While we have focused on fuel efficiency for bottom-line savings, the added benefit of fuel efficiency is reduced emissions. And if you’re burning less fuel with new trucks, congrats! You’ve decarbonized! You’re not at zero emissions but you’re moving toward it. And as fleet managers are pressured by others at the company, they should get credit for investing in the latest diesel technologies to not only spend less on fuel but reduce emissions.

Shell, a name you might not expect to have a huge presence at a trade show focused on moving 100% away from fossil fuels, highlighted how much more efficiency there is to gain with the latest, currently available diesel technology with its Starship 2.0, which boasted higher than 12 MPG in one of its runs that mimicked real-world hauling applications. Shell has also developed tools to help fleets explain and quantify its reduction of emissions when improving fuel efficiency.

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Yes, come 2050, truck equipment will look vastly different than diesel powertrains of today, but thinking about decarbonization starts with your next diesel spec. Your next two new truck lifecycles will probably still be diesel, but beyond that, things will start to change. Keep your decarbonization mindset steady by starting it now.

3. There’s conviction behind the business decisions

Peter Voorhoeve, president of Volvo Trucks North America, said it best during his keynote address the first morning of ACT Expo: “We have a responsibility of our planet and hand it over to our children.” There’s an air of urgency that hung over ACT Expo. There was clear acknowledgement of climate change impacts, especially as the Long Beach, California-based show was held in the wake of Hurricane Ida, which continues to hammer the eastern seaboard. The recent U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that noted that humans have accelerated climate change and we’re on pace to make extreme weather even worse was noted by many speakers, exhibitors and attendees.

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The business side of the electrification is getting worked out—with modest electric truck sales coming into all OEMs who have them available for order—and at every press conference, the importance of zero emissions was talked about as a responsibility in addition to delivering on fleet expectations. For the early adopters, zero emissions transportation is a mission critical business pillar.

As Voorhoeve also said: “Trucking is going to be part of the solution.”

And Fleet Equipment will be there to cover those solutions as the industry moves toward zero-emissions goals.

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