While striving to reduce emissions, the freight industry often faces this question: Is it better to upgrade current technology or invest in research and development of new technology?

Consider the heavy-duty truck market.

The newest generation of diesel trucks provides measurable efficiency improvements and reductions in emissions, but experts who view electric vehicles (EVs) and other zero-emission vehicles as trucks of the future worry that improved diesel technology could delay the adoption of EVs.

Since new diesel vehicles last 10 to 20 years, depending on mileage and other factors, investing in them now could delay EV investments.

“EVs are great, but there’s not a whole lot of options in the heavy-duty market,” Casey Selecman, director of powertrain forecasts at AutoForecast Solutions, said during a Diesel Technology Forum (DTF) webinar.

He added that trucking companies are risk-averse toward EVs and said adoption of EVs will be “very slow and methodical.”

“Not to take away from the opportunities that electric vehicles present in terms of reducing CO2 emissions to truly zero levels with the right amount of renewable energy to power those vehicles, but I think it also highlights the significant potential for reducing greenhouse gases now and what can we do now to do that? And this newest generation of diesel is doing that today,” Allen Schaeffer, DTF executive director, said during the webinar.

Compared to older diesel trucks, the newest generation of diesel trucks contributed to “massive savings” of 202 million tons of CO2 emissions from 2007 to 2020, according to Selecman. Over those 13 years, the DTF said newer diesel trucks saved the emissions equivalent of taking 43 million light-duty vehicles off the road for one year. 

In addition to lowering CO2 emissions, the newest generation of diesel vehicles positively impacted air quality. By replacing older, less efficient diesel trucks, they prevented 27 million tons of nitrogen oxides from 2007 to 2020. Particulate matter, another pollutant that harms human health, was reduced by 1.6 million tons in the same time frame.

Recently released DTF data said that 49% of all diesel commercial vehicles in the U.S. on the road — 5.5 million Class 3-8 trucks — have the newest diesel technology. From July 2019 to December 2020 alone, adoption of these “near-zero-emissions” diesel trucks increased by 6%.

The experts said fueling the newest generation of diesel engines with biodiesel packs even more environmental and air quality benefits. A May DTF release shared California Air Resources Board data that renewable diesel and biodiesel provided three times the amount of CO2 emissions reductions as EVs in California in 2020. However, that is at least partly related to the higher volume of diesel vehicles than EVs on the road.

DTF said 76% of all commercial vehicles in the U.S. are diesel-powered, so switching to biodiesel could make large impacts on emissions for the trucking industry.

“While the promise of zero-emission commercial vehicles is growing, it may be many years, if not a decade or more, before these solutions enter the fleet in significant numbers. In the meantime, continued progress on improving air quality and lowering greenhouse gas emissions is essential,” Schaeffer said in a statement.

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Alyssa Sporrer.

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