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December 18, 2018   |   Diesel Technology Forum

Policy Insider

Reflections on 2018 by DTF Exec. Dir. Allen Schaeffer

It’s the time of year that inspires purposeful reflection. This is harder than ever with the hourly twists and turns in our political and media environments, but here goes:

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The reality is that Europe needs continued investment in advanced internal combustion engines – gas and diesel – to achieve economic, climate and environmental progress, unless or until something better comes along.


But in most cities, the everyday actual real work of delivering the goods – providing both basic and emergency services – falls largely on proven systems and technologies like diesel.


Diesel is still around today more than 125 years from its founding because of continuous improvement and exceeding expectations in its ability to get even lower in emissions



It’s the time of year that inspires purposeful reflection. This is harder than ever with the hourly twists and turns in our political and media environments, but here goes:

Is the sky falling? No question that global energy and environmental policy is in a state of upheaval and change; it’s different for everyone. Rollbacks, denials and other labels are quick, commonplace and also careless, I think. I see truck, engine and equipment makers forging ahead to make their technologies cleaner, more efficient and increasingly productive for their customers, regardless of the political leadership or the headline of the day. Nothing has changed there. And customers are buying them! More new technology diesel engines hit the road in 2018 than any previous year, so that today more than 36 percent of all heavy-duty trucks on U.S. roads are of the newest, lowest-emission and highest-efficiency generation. Truck manufacturers’ order books were slammed for the first half of 2018, and there are months-long waits on certain kinds of new construction machines.

So good news – the sky is not falling, at least from this perspective – for continuing to make progress on improving air quality, the climate and using less energy, this year and for years to come as these new advanced diesel-powered units go into service. 

First, do no harm? As we’re learning, sometimes government policies dealing with big, messy issues don’t subscribe to this oath. In the United States, trade and tariff policies do have real-world bottom-line impacts beyond making everyone jittery: they effect manufacturers’ ability to invest and innovate, with prices going up and jobs at risk. Getting trade and tariff policy right needs to be a top priority, soon.

In Europe, a poltergeist policy on diesel cars has gone from a self-inflicted (government and industry) problem (as of yet unresolved) into the realm of making matters worse, not better: Europe saw an increase in CO2 emissions for the first time in about 10 years, as confused consumers held back on buying new cars. Couple that with political posturing and decrees to ban internal combustion engines in the 20XX future is great for the uncertainty business, but what does that really mean? The reality is that Europe needs continued investment in advanced internal combustion engines – gas and diesel – to achieve economic, climate and environmental progress, unless or until something better comes along.

Yes, there are real and meaningful new clean air initiatives: The Clean Truck Initiative announced by the U.S. EPA in November formally opens a course for a next round of new engine emissions standards for heavy-duty engines. Can everyone please embrace this simply for what it is at this moment – as a positive, as an industry (!) taking a positive initiative to set a course for even lower emissions. (BTW diesel engines are near-zero right now – a new standard will just bring them even-nearer-to-zero). There will be plenty of time in the rulemaking process to be critical of all the details, but can we resolve to simply see it for what it is, and be hopeful and optimistic about what it might accomplish? Good! 

VW Environmental Mitigation Trust Settlement: Nothing is settled here and there is plenty of mistrust in the potential for mitigation of environmental damages. This year, every state won their portion of the VW diesel emissions cheating scandal funds. What a free-for-all! Some advocates heretofore demanding “clean air now,” suddenly demanded “climate mitigation for the future now,” even if emissions reductions don’t really come along for a_very_long_time. Can some accountants roll up their sleeves and figure out which states’ spending plans have actually reduced NOx emissions and to what degree? Was this a good public investment or not? A good number of states are taking the money and running with everything from investments in eight autonomous shuttle buses (RI) to electrification infrastructure and other strategies that may not deliver NOx reductions for years, if ever. Meanwhile, they ignore the largest sources of NOx emissions, and avoid targeting the funds where they will get the biggest bang for the clean air buck. As a line item, California dedicated more of its settlement funds to administrative costs than to dedicated investments in diesel engine upgrades!

Electrification might be the cool talk of the town, but diesel is actually doing the work of the town. On any given day, all the media conversation and internet chatter about the potential for electrification of (fill in the blank here of a vehicle type or sector) could easily power a sizable city! But in most cities, the everyday actual real work of delivering the goods – providing both basic and emergency services – falls largely on proven systems and technologies like diesel. Why? Because they work, delivering a level of proven and predictable service in just about every circumstance. Will there be some changes? Will new fuels make headways into these sectors and displace diesel? Some already have; for others, only time will tell. 

Every manufacturer of diesel trucks, engines or equipment has some level of investment in R&D and/or production of electric versions of some of their products. They are smartly testing the waters – balancing the opportunity potential of the new technology with customer demands that are influenced by policy directives, incentives and simple economics. Sometimes it’s a mash-up of old and new. Take for example the off-road equipment area – wheel loaders and excavators – where manufacturers are adding hybrid systems or electric motors to some mechanical functions, using the diesel engine in a “generator mode” to operate the equipment at maximum efficiency.

As a rational advocate for diesel, I think we should look for the best in all technologies and embrace innovation for the greater good. At the same time, let’s not demean the technologies that are working today just because something is cool, new or different. Let the “new thing” prove itself, because what is cool, new or different often doesn’t meet expectations.

If history teaches us any lesson, the diesel engine isn’t going away anytime soon. It remains the most energy efficient internal combustion engine whether running on diesel fuel or, increasingly, on pure renewable fuels from waste products. Diesel is still around today more than 125 years from its founding because of continuous improvement and exceeding expectations in its ability to get even lower in emissions , and to further improve efficiency that will enable it to compete with or work with “the next new thing” whatever that is and wherever it is from.

 



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Ezra Finkin
Director, Policy
efinkin@dieselforum.org
301-668-7230

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