Back to the Future: New Technologies under Development for Trucking Industry

Modified on January 19, 2023

Lately, it seems there’s been a great deal of discussion about the development of the next generation of trucks. As we approach the 121st anniversary of the successful test of the world’s first diesel engine in 1897 by Rudolf Diesel, and the 94th anniversary of the debut of the world’s first truck powered by a diesel engine with direct fuel injection, it’s interesting to note all of the new diesel fuel alternatives currently under development.

Noted Silicon Valley entrepreneur and Stanford University lecturer Tony Seba predicted that by 2030, the advantages of electric power over diesel will force fleets to switch to electric vehicles (EVs). The futurist, who also penned the book “Clean Disruption of Energy and Transportation,” made the prediction at Transparency18, a two-day conference in Atlanta, produced by data analytics company FreightWaves in partnership with the Blockchain in Transport Alliance and Georgia Tech.

One futurist says electricity will disrupt diesel within 10 years; another says not so fast

“The 2020s will be the most disruptive decade in history,” Seba told conference-goers, as reported by Max Heine, editorial director of Overdrive: Heine also noted that Jason Schenker, chairman of the Futurist Institute, presented conference-goers a more pessimistic view about the future of EVs. Schenker pointed out that oil isn’t a rare enough commodity, however materials used in the production of batteries – a key component in EVs, almost certainly are.

Regardless of what the futurists may be trying to foretell, one thing is clear: while developers of cutting edge EV technology, like Tesla and Nikola Motors charge ahead, truck manufacturers are certainly not taking any chances at having their brands go the way of the dodo. In several instances, truck manufacturers have developed many new technologies that they have rolled out overseas and in Latin America, but not here in the United States because of public perception, legislation and existing infrastructure.

Still, a number of truck manufacturers have diesel alternatives for the U.S. market under development, which their dealers may eventually offer. For some trucking fleets and operators watching nervously as world events are causing diesel fuel prices to rise, perhaps this may be welcome news.

For the near future, a number of OEMs are developing major tweaks to their diesel-fueled combustion engines and integrated powertrains to accomplish major fuel efficiency gains. Looking further ahead and well into the 21st Century, many are developing trucks that can operate within a platoon, can assist the driver and can drive themselves. Some OEMs are making further advancements employing engines powered by diesel fuel alternatives and that won’t require emission treatment systems.

While all or nearly all of the major truck OEMs offer Cummins Westport natural gas-powered engines, consider these additional technology developments by several well-known and other not-so-well-known truck OEMs and equipment vendors:

  • Driver-assist and self-driving trucks: While autonomous trucks will likely use radar and cameras, which already provide the eyes for existing onboard safety systems, another technology called lidar, which stands for light detection and ranging, will play a major role in the further development of driver-assist and self-driving systems. Other industries and the military have used lidar for years in the development of autonomous vehicles. Lidar can scan areas around the truck through laser emitters and chipsets that can analyze the 3D scans of its surroundings. This allows the onboard computer to make better self-driving decisions. Previously, lidar suppliers couldn’t offer solid-state versions of the devices, which lack the moving parts of older systems, at a low enough price-point to make them affordable. Recently, that’s changed as Quanergy, Valeo and Velodyne have offered solid-state lidar in higher volumes making them more affordable for the trucking industry;
  • Level 4 autonomous trucks: Chinese company TuSimple, Peterbilt Motors Company and Nvidia are developing a Level 4 autonomous truck. Level 4 means that while the truck could drive itself, it would still require a human being to be at the wheel once it exits the highway. Three of the autonomous trucks successfully traveled about 10,000 miles between Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona, in field tests last year. The truck was showcased at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2018) in Las Vegas in January;
  • Electric-powered waste trucks: Peterbilt is developing all-electric Class 8 Model 579 day cab tractors and Model 520 refuse trucks using Meritor powertrains and TransPower battery systems. The Model 520 demonstration refuse truck was on display at Waste Expo in Las Vegas in April. Field tests are expected to take about a year;
  • Electric-powered over-the-road trucks: The Daimler Trucks North America Freightliner division unveiled two fully electric trucks, including an electric version of its flagship Cascadia tractor – the Freightliner eCascadia, and a smaller truck called the eM2 at its headquarters in Portland, Oregon, in June. The eCascadia features up to 730 peak horsepower. Its batteries provide 550 kilowatt hours (kWh) of usable capacity, allowing it travel up to 250 miles. The eCascadia’s batteries can also charge up to an 80 percent capacity in about 90 minutes giving drivers a range of 200 miles. The eCascadia is designed for local and regional operations. The smaller eM2, which is designed for local distribution, pickup and delivery, food and beverage delivery and final-mile logistics operations, features up to 480 peak horsepower. Its batteries offer 325 kWh of usable capacity, which translates into a range of up to 230 miles on a full charge. After being plugged in for 60 minutes, the eM2’s batteries can deliver a range of 184 miles on an 80-percent charge.
  • Hydrogen fuel cells: The Kenworth Zero Emissions Cargo Truck (ZECT), which appeared at CES 2018 in January, is a hydrogen fuel cell powered battery-electric vehicle with a current range of 100 miles. Its range can be extended though the installation of larger hydrogen fuel storage tanks. Development of the truck was funded through the Department of Energy’s Office of Efficiency and Renewable Energy, under the funding plan for zero-emissions cargo transport initiative, as well as the South Coast Air Quality Management District and the California Air Commission. It is soon expected to be deployed at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and operated by Los-Angeles-based port drayage company, Total Transportation Services Inc.;
  • Fuel economy rockets away on a Starship: Airflow Truck Co. in partnership with Shell Lubricants, is developing a Class 8 tractor-trailer combo called simply Starship, which promises to turbocharge fuel economy savings for truck fleets and operators;
  • Truck platooning: Peleton Technology Uber’s Advanced Technology Group, formerly known as Otto, has been developing self-driving truck technology for the past two years. In 2016, it field tested a self-driving truck that hauled Budweiser beer on a 120-mile run in Colorado. Peloton is also a frontrunner in the development of platooning technology;
  • Adapting self-driving technology currently in use: Since 2009, Google’s parent company Alphabet has been developing self-driving technology through Waymo. Recently, it has been adapting that technology for a truck that works much like the Uber self-driving truck, perhaps because a former Google self-driving tech executive left to start Otto;
  • Electric-powered medium-duty trucks: Mitsubishi Fuso Truck and Bus Corp., a division of Daimler Trucks, are jointly developing a concept vehicle called the E-Fuso Vision One truck, which isn’t available yet for the U.S. market since there isn’t a large enough electric charging infrastructure;
  • Fuel economy on a mega diet: Meanwhile, Freightliner is developing the Freightliner Supertruck, which can currently travel nearly twice the distance on a single gallon of diesel fuel compared to most trucks on the road today –;
  • Here’s some Inspiration: Then there’s the autonomous Freightliner Inspiration, which Daimler introduced in a grandiose fashion with a public unveiling that featured what could be arguably called the biggest video presentation projected directly onto the face of the Hoover Dam;
  • DME: In partnership with Oberon Fuels, Mack Trucks has been exploring the use of dimethyl ether, or DME, a clean-burning alternative to diesel with field tests. Depending on the outcome of those test results, which are expected soon, interest in the alternative fuel may be re-ignited. The truck maker and its parent company, Volvo Trucks North America, abandoned earlier development plans when diesel fuel prices dropped and interest in alternative fuels waned.

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