Funding the future

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The next decade needs R&D programs to decrease medium- and heavy-duty truck petroleum fuel consumption.” – from the testimony of John Johnson, professor of mechanical engineering at Michigan Technological University before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Energy & Environment of the Committee on Science & Technology

We all want commercial trucks large and small to get better fuel economy; that’s a given no matter what your economic, environmental or political philosophies are. Using less fuel means spending less money on a day to day basis for every truck owner out there, while simultaneously emitting less pollution. To use a very overworked cliché, that’s a “win-win” for almost every political point of view, from die-hard conservative to left-wing liberal.

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Yet to achieve the technological breakthroughs necessary to improve fuel economy requires that single, all-important ingredient that tends to ignite a wide variety of volatile political fuses: money. Especially in this day and age, with federal deficits ballooning to frightening heights, it’s even harder to hold out the research and development (R&D) hat to gain the necessary funding.

So one must ask the fundamental question: is funding such R&D worth the money? Can government research dollars truly make a difference to the economic and environmental footprint of the trucking business? And how important is this funding anyways?

Several months ago, John Johnson – professor of mechanical engineering at Michigan Technological University – tried to answer that very question in testimony before the U.S. Congress. He chaired a committee that reviewed the “21st Century Truck Partnership” formed back during President Clinton’s administration to see if in fact this public-private R&D effort delivered concrete technological advances worthy of its funding. In his opinion, it did, but I share his thoughts so you can decide for yourself if his argument holds water to your mind.

For the record, I’ve never met Professor Johnson and know very little about his work. But his resume indicates he’s well versed in diesel engine technology.

After getting his PhD, Johnson spent two years as a 1st Lieutenant in the U.S. Army in the late 1950s at the Tank-Automotive Center in Warren, Michigan managing engine research projects. He then worked as chief engineer of applied engine research at International Harvester (now Navistar) before joining Michigan Technological University in 1970. Since3 1980, Johnson said he’s participated in 12 different National Academies Committees, so he’s well-versed in the rigmarole required to get public-private ventures up and running successfully.

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“Despite the many benefits of the ‘21st Century Truck Partnership,’ including helping the engine industry meet the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] 2007 particulate and 2010 NOx [oxides of nitrogen] standards, the program suffered from the dwindling resources devoted to the program by DOE [the Department of Energy],” Johnson said in his testimony back in late March.

“Funds were about $87 million in FY 2002 and decreased to $30 million in FY 2008. This funding pattern does not reflect the number of productive R&D opportunities. It also does not reflect the economic weight of the industry,” he said. “In the 2002 Economic Census, the truck transportation industry consisted of more than 112,698 separate establishments, with total revenues of $165 billion. These establishments employ 1,437,259 workers, who take home an annual payroll of $47 billion.”

[Though those numbers more than likely decreased over the past year and half due to the economic downturn in the U.S. and worldwide, it still shows how big the trucking business really is.]

“Truck and bus manufacturing also account for a significant share of national income,” said Johnson. “According to the same census, light-truck and utility-vehicle manufacturers have total shipments of $137 billion. Heavy-duty-truck manufacturing had sales of $16 billion. Another way to look at the trucking industry’s economic contribution is to compare the revenue from trucks with other sectors in the transportation industry, in which case trucks account for about one-fourth of the industry’s total revenues.”

Because of the low level of funding from DOE, he noted, the 21st Century Truck Partnership (‘21CTP’) chose to focus its R&D effort on the Class 8 long-haul type of vehicle, which consumes 75% of the petroleum in the heavy- and medium-truck sector.

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“Yet it was forced to cancel many projects originally in the 21CTP roadmap, including light-weighing vehicles, all-electric components on vehicles, aerodynamic modeling and design, and low rolling resistance tires,” Johnson stressed. “Federal, state, and local governments and commercial trucking firms, such as utility and delivery operations that use medium-duty trucks, are also interested in the fuel economy of their vehicles since it also affects their operating costs – they want advanced technology such as hybrid vehicles.”

As a result of potential fuel economy regulations by NHTSA [National Highway Traffic Safety Administration], he said it’s important that the Federal government fund the DOE program at levels such as $200 million/year with $90 million/year for engine, emission control systems, and biodiesel fuels research.

“The program should be funded for 5-10 years at this level so that the industry will have the technology in the 2015-2020 timeframe to meet potential fuel economy regulations,” Johnson emphasized.

He also pointed out that safety is another important part of the 21CTP program. Though crash protection measures have not substantially reduced highway fatalities during the past decade, Johnson said the main research objective going forward should be to prevent crashes using crash avoidance technologies and in-vehicle communications systems.

“There is need for $25 million per year for safety related research which should be designated for DOT [Department of Transportation] by line item for the 21CTP,” he said.

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Johnson added that other efforts need funding over the next decade, especially R&D programs to decrease medium- and heavy-duty truck petroleum fuel consumption. Those areas include: the use of advanced diesel engine and aftertreatment technologies, advanced truck and trailer aerodynamic designs, and low rolling resistance tires.

The use of hybrid systems in applications that have duty cycles that can reduce the fuel consumption, including advanced cooling systems and engine components that use less energy, is another area, he noted, along with “light weighing” of vehicles and trailers so that more payload can be carried which reduces the fuel consumption in gallons/ton of payload-miles are needed.

“A major effort must be carried out to develop biodiesel fuels that meet ASTM specifications, are energy and greenhouse gas efficient in the production of the bio component and make good use of the land without compromising the food supply and the price of food,” Johnson argued. “It is important that the price differential between gasoline and diesel fuel does not increase more than the 60 to 70 cents per gallon that has existed in the past few years.”

Decreasing the truck petroleum fuel consumption with lower fuel consumption vehicles should help this diesel fuel market demand condition that now exists, he said. “More biodiesel fuel use should help decrease the demand for the petroleum fuel if the research program is aggressive,” Johnson explained.

“One of our findings on the management strategy and priority setting pointed out that the program operated as a virtual network of agencies and government labs with an unwieldy structure and budget process,” he added. “This would be significantly improved if heavy truck funds for EPA, DOE and DOT were designated by line items that are directed at this program. I know that this is very difficult because each of these agencies go to different Congressional Committees for their funds. [But] the U.S. has always been a world leader in developing advanced trucks. The heavy-duty diesel engine has always been cutting edge technology in durability, reliability, low fuel consumption, and now in 2010 low in emissions. This product development and manufacturing base in the U.S. must be maintained if we as a country are to be strong in the global economy.”

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Johnson also stressed that this truck manufacturing industrial base is also important to the military, particularly to the Army and Marines since diesel powered vehicles and diesel fuels are critical elements of U.S. ground forces.

“We must maintain this base … [and that] will happen with an aggressive R&D program in the commercial sector that includes maintaining National Laboratories and Universities as strong components in the program,” he stressed.

You may agree or disagree, but Johnson makes some very interesting points – especially in terms of how much our military relies on the very same network of manufactures and suppliers that supports the commercial trucking business. That connection is a critical one, as both military and commercial trucks can benefit from fuel economy advances, yet equally suffer from a lack on investment. Thoughts worth pondering in the continual debate over U.S. transportation and trucking needs for the future.

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