Congress has mandated a report from the National Research Council to evaluate various technologies and methods that could improve the fuel economy of medium- and heavy-duty vehicles, such as tractor-trailers, transit buses, and work trucks. The report is in late draft form and recommends approaches that federal agencies could use to regulate these vehicles’ fuel consumption. Currently there are no fuel consumption standards for such vehicles, which account for about 26 percent of the transportation fuel used in the U.S.

That’s scary just to start, but when thinking through the various configurations, which number easily into tens of thousands, with uncounted one off purpose built trucks, the regulatory concept seems to be an invitation to a wall of regulatory books.  For the credit of the new study’s authors, they know this and warn early in the narrative that much should be considered before diving into the regulatory labor.  Japan has already gotten to regulating trucks, the European Union is hot on it and California is working up its own hubristic regulations.  All are racing to the “Oh my (insert your expression of choice here)” salvation of government knowing better than truck owners and operators.

The idea isn’t bad, rather the implementation may well be, or probably will be as we’re talking about government mandates here.  The facts that can be gleaned about what’s available are quite the eye opener.  But the government, instead of optimizing the market to integrate the known working and good coming prospects, is going to regulate.

The study authors seem to have some sense.  The press release says, “any regulation of medium- and heavy-duty vehicles should use a metric that reflects the efficiency with which a vehicle moves goods or passengers, such as gallons per ton-mile, a unit that reflects the amount of fuel a vehicle would use to carry a ton of goods one mile. This is called load-specific fuel consumption (LSFC).

The report does not recommend a specific numerical standard because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will need to establish standards tied to the task associated with a particular type of vehicle; garbage trucks might be held to a different standard than transit buses, for example.”

If the study author’s take would become the guideline, then a buyer would find more fuel economy choices and supporting information at purchase.  That would be worthwhile.  But the problem is the Congress in its infinite wisdom is seeking to mandate fuel economy standards.  Going that route is going to simply increase costs with perhaps a benefit in less fuel use or just as likely – require more.

This is because the performance of moving mass will always be in the conditions of operations.  A bucket truck may well go down a highway only to head off into a swamp or up a mountainside or any imaginable conditions in between.  Optimized for fuel economy may well force a truck design that can meet lawful sale but cannot get to the job.  Well-traveled readers will know that the level road isn’t everywhere.  It takes power to take loads up hill.  Imagine using a jack to lift 80,000 pounds up say 100 feet – twice per mile.  If that doesn’t set one back, some trucks like garbage trucks go a few yards, stop and repeat dozens of time until loaded and then will drive at highway speeds only to get to unloading which might be done in a quagmire.

With infinite conditions the mandate will inevitably seek to force standards and categories so limiting applications for trucks.  While it might seem sensible to compel an improvement in fuel economy, the study authors realize that fuel efficiency is much more realistic and less complex.

Here are some of the leading ideas available to improve fuel efficiency:

Truck Fuel Ecomony Potential. Click image for the largest view.

Now imagine the truck operator’s point of view.  Moving to a diesel fleet looks quite motivating, hybrid power trains where practical would be very interesting as well.  Aerodynamics has great potential, as do reducing rolling resistance and adding computer assistance for intelligent engine and transmission operation.  Lots of hope here.

It would seem that these options should be offered with information describing the cost to fuel saved and when an operator would get” into the money.”  Incentives for the van, be it the box on a straight truck or the semi trailer could also have incentives.   An extra vehicle fee for not being aerodynamic might do the trick.  Good aero dynamics may need some other regulatory work as adding un cargoed length for saving fuel allowed being one important point.

The National Research Council report is thorough – running better than 400 pages with addendums.  The work itself is quite good and the recommendations sensible in the main. There is little point in personal attention for the National Research Council or the National Academy of Sciences in an effort to influence the regulatory course that’s coming.

But if you use or drive the bigger pickup or van up to the over the road semi tractor trailer, your attention needs pointed to the Congressmen and Senators.   There is a lot available in saving fuel in about a quarter of the transport fuel market.  Some incentives right away in the best of the technologies might well preclude the need for regulation and another bureaucracy with a wall of books filled with regulations.


5 Comments so far

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