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Jon LeSage

Jon LeSage

Jon LeSage is a California-based journalist covering clean vehicles, alternative energy, and economic and regulatory trends shaping the automotive, transportation, and mobility sectors.

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Diesel Trucks Aren’t Going Anywhere

Diesel will dominate the commercial truck segment for years to come, but when will the switchover to electrified, automated trucks seriously impact the demand for this fuel?

It’s a pressing question for the U.S. in particular, where 70 percent of the goods use traditional diesel engine medium- and heavy-duty trucks (and some of the medium- and light-duty work trucks use gasoline engines). Rail transport is being taken more seriously, like the rest of the world, but diesel trucks will be the mainstay for freight hauling short of pump prices skyrocketing.

Contracts for these electric trucks with semi-autonomous functions are being secured by Tesla, Nikola, Workhorse Group, Volvo Trucks, and Daimler Trucks. As for fully autonomous trucks and platooning of small truck fleets, that’s being taken as seriously as electrified trucks, vans, and buses. Much of that has to do with a shortage of drivers. The American Trucking Association says the industry is about 51,000 drivers short of what is needed to keep trucking going strong.

Truck fleet operators and logistics/delivery companies, along with startup and established truck makers, see the trend with years in the making; but they are taking it very seriously. As are major parts and electronics suppliers, and government agencies planning the future of highway systems and city driving.

Bosch, one of the largest automotive suppliers in the world, is using the 67th IAA Commercial Vehicles in Hannover as a showcase platform to become known as an innovator for tomorrow’s freight traffic. Products include connectivity for cloud-based services geared for truck drivers and logistics specialists; it will also deliver predictive diagnostics and over-the-air updates. Bosch’s Transport Data Logger will answer questions for those wanting the goods supply chain to be transparent. The small box monitors road conditions for sensitive goods — temperature, humidity, tilt, and shock events.

Autonomous functions include digital side-view mirrors reducing drag and increasing fuel efficiency; a digital instrument cluster into the cockpit that helps keep the driver focused on the truck’s essentials and safe driving on the highway; and semi-autonomous safety features like driver assistance systems, turn warning, blind-spot recognition, and predictive emergency braking. Related: The Winners And Losers This Earnings Season

For electrified systems available to vehicle manufacturing partners, Bosch is selling three of them: a cargo tricycle with a 48-volt powertrain designed to carry food and small shipments the last mile on crowded city streets; an e-cargo bike with a maximum torque of 63 Nm for a powerful takeoff and a range up to 180 km (about 112 miles); and an electric trailer axle with a high-voltage battery storing energy produced during braking. The energy can be reused for multiple applications such as operating cooling compressors for trailers or starting assistance in construction vehicles. The company claims that using the electric trailer axles could save up to 9,000 liters (2,377.5 gallons) of fuel annually.

A new study by Navigant Research explores the new technologies that need to come into play for these electrified, automated trucks to be able to drive safely across highways.

Autonomous trucking will tap into machine vision and other sensors to monitor the local road conditions. Highway sensors will soon be able to send data reports on these conditions to central service centers that can instruct fleet operators and drivers on how to optimize traffic flow.

Studies being done on test trials are showing urban and highway planners what needs to be taken into consideration as electric automated trucks become the norm. That taps into what the industry calls smart highway technologies, with autonomous and electric vehicles playing a major role. Recommendations are offered in the report to road construction firms and suppliers on how to tap into the huge market potential, and for government agencies on how to realistically plan for the next few years to come.

Along with startups like Tesla and Nikola gaining much attention, the two largest trucks companies — Daimler and Volvo — are investing even more in the next generation of the technology. Volvo has been leaning more heavily toward autonomous trucking and platooning, but both truckmakers are investing significantly in AVs and EVs.

Daimler, the world’s largest truck maker, recently unveiled two new battery-powered trucks. The all-electric Freightliner eCascadia heavy-duty trucks will be ready for commercial-scale production by 2021. A smaller medium-duty Freightliner eM2 106 is also in the planning phase for launch in the same time period.

The eCascadia has been designed for highway freight hauling with a range of about 250 miles in between charges. The eM2 will go about 230 miles per charge, but that will happen in the local delivery and last-mile markets.

Daimler is feeling the squeeze from the wave of interest Tesla has received for its upcoming Semi trucks. Another pressure point has been Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway-backed BYD, which has extended well beyond China’s “new energy vehicle” market. BYD is a major player in the global electric bus and commercial truck markets.

Magnus Koeck, vice president of marketing and brand management of Volvo Trucks North America, laid out the company’s game plan in a recent interview. Related: Russia’s High Risk Global Oil Strategy

Diesel will be the dominant fuel for years to come, and that will be at first offset by more hybrid technologies and later all-electric powertrains. Volvo has so far sold about 3,000 of its buses that are electrified. Deciding where to bring more electric buses and trucks to which global markets will be led by the expected payback time, he said.

As for autonomous vehicle technology, Volvo has been showcasing trial runs in Europe. One of them has been a fully autonomous truck using in mining operations. Another has gone to refuse collection, and another to a sugar plantation in Brazil.

Koeck and his counterparts seeing the technology being in place, but the hurdle continues to be addressing the safety issues, legislation allowing AVs, and public acceptance.

Platooning has more of a chance of finding acceptance and adoption earlier, he said. Volvo has manufactured more than 150,000 trucks with connectivity that transfers the necessary data for truck operators to safely move a group of its trucks down the highway. Remote diagnostics and over-the-air programming are being utilized by fleet operators, which will be a step forward on testing AV and EV technology in the future.

By Jon LeSage for Oilprice.com

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  • Ronald C Wagner on August 05 2018 said:
    Wrong question. When diesel prices rise natural gas trucks will take over. They will be much more efficient than electric, or natural gas will run hybrid electric engines. Natural gas trucks are already common worldwide and have a big advantage over electric, that is weight. Natural gas is dirt cheap and is available nationwide aside from the Dakotas and Montana. Natural gas can also run locomotives, ships, stationary engines et all.
  • Vishwas on August 06 2018 said:
    Diesel days seem to be over. Except a few electricity deficient developing countries, its demand will be zero. Three tech development - 'in-wheels', 'wireless on-road EV battery charging' and 'High density EV batteries' most likely to be commercialized by 2019-2020. Long term development seem to be working towards safe micro-nuclear plants. Fossil fuel days overall seem to be over. Shipping, aviation sectors may retain some demand for a still a few more years. Industrial demand for petroproducts may remain - but it's miniscule. I give max 10 years for oil sector to be totally disrupted and bankrupt - the process to gain speed by 2019 itself. Oil will compete then with electricity but environmental issues will make it unaffordable. Overall effect on the global economy difficult to simulate.
  • skierpage on August 10 2018 said:
    John LeSage, that's quite a poorly-written article. There no connection between autonomous trucks and electric trucks beyond both being future technologies; one can succeed and not the other. Nikola's truck is very different from the others since it runs on hydrogen, not electricity stored in batteries. You didn't consider natural gas which would also affect diesel truck demand.

    "when will the switchover to electrified, automated trucks seriously impact the demand for this fuel?" Umm, did you not realize you didn't even attempt to answer your own vague question? You could calculate everyone's planned production volumes and work out what percentage of truck sales that represents, and come up with a growth rate, then do some math. Try again. If any subset continues to grow at a faster rate than the overall market, it *will* take over eventually.
  • null on August 12 2018 said:
    Yeah, that's what they said about bushes to.

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