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February 24, 2020   |  


Commentary: Don’t count out diesel just yet

At the North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE), we believe that electric trucks are the technology that will dominate the future. However, that does not mean we think diesel trucks are going to disappear overnight.

All technology adoption tends to follow an S-curve pattern. Technology S-curves are real, whether discussing the stereotypical growth of market penetration from the fledgling market entry to near market dominance with mature product or talking about the potential for technology improvement as products mature. S-curve behavior applies to performance, reliability, life span, economy and other factors.

Singular major transportation technology shifts occur less frequently than do a collections of incremental annual broad-spectrum technology improvements, but they do occur. An example previously reported by NACFE is called “dieselization,” which occurred between 1938 and 1965 with the introduction – and rapid adoption – of the diesel-electric power systems for trains that replaced steam power systems.

Each of the alternative energy technologies rolling out for trucking will have its own technology S-curves as the market decides where investment makes sense, as the products mature and as parallel innovations arise to compete with or help them mature. The speed at which each technology advances will depend on market demand, which fuels investment in research and development.

However, diesel technology, while on the mature market dominant end of the S-curve, will not stop seeing improvements. Yes, the improvements will be more incremental, but they will be spurred either by regulatory changes or the desire of diesel engine manufacturers to continue to provide fuel efficient options for fleets. This also brings up a nuance to the adoption curves in that each market segment has its own path to scaling.

Another reason that diesel will be around for some time is that the business case for electric vehicles has not been proven for all applications. To be clear, there are applications today where commercial battery electric vehicles (CBEV) offer a nice pay back: like transit and school buses, medium-duty trucks and segments of  regional haul tractors. But the widespread adoption of CBEVs in long-haul trucking is a little farther into the future.

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