Buying a truck gets easier, yet more complex

Nov. 1, 2008
Specing a new truck has gotten easier over the past 25 years or so. However, the process may become more complicated in the future. New truck purchases

Specing a new truck has gotten easier over the past 25 years or so. However, the process may become more complicated in the future.

New truck purchases became easier in the sense that fleets are more willing today to accept a vehicle with a more or less standard drivetrain specification. One reason is that all of the North American truck builders now offer standardized specifications that are optimized for various vocational applications.

With few exceptions, fleet managers seem to feel that they no longer need to build a truck specification from the ground up. That has enabled truck builders to partner with one or two vendors for major components, such as transmissions and axles. In addition, all of the North American truck builders now offer their own engines as standard equipment.

The upside is that the standard-spec truck often costs less than a vehicle custom spec'd from the ground up. That may be the biggest reason this trend should continue.

There are some downsides, though. Fewer choices mean customers could have less control over price in the future. Additionally, fleets that run multiple truck brands will find it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to spec the same drivetrain system in all of their power units.

Looking down the road, the specing process could become more complicated if fuels and power configurations continue to proliferate and the trucking industry is pushed to meet future mandates to reduce CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions. That would make it a whole new ballgame.

Here is some of what fleet managers must ponder for the future: Will today's diesel engine remain viable? What sort of fuels might be mandated in coming years? What role will be played by products such as hybrid power?

Diesel engines that use petroleum-based fuel almost certainly will face regulatory pressure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Natural gas (liquefied or compressed) is one fuel option getting renewed consideration for urban areas.

Biodiesel offers yet another option for lowering greenhouse gas levels. Studies by the federal government show that biodiesel reduces net CO2 emissions by 78% compared to petroleum diesel.

Farther down the road, the trucking industry could see the development of biogas fuels consisting mainly of hydrocarbon methane extracted from a variety of sources such as sewage treatment plants and landfills. Biogas can be mixed with hydrogen in low concentrations and blended with biodiesel.

Volvo Group engineers have been studying truck fuels made of dimethyl ether (DME), a gas that that is handled in liquid form and is produced by gasification of biomass. It also is a product of wood pulp operations.

Hybrid power systems could play a big role in helping fleets meet requirements for CO2-neutral vehicles. Hybrid drivelines typically consist of a diesel engine, an electric motor system, an automated manual transmission, batteries, and conventional drive axles.

Many of these alternative power sources could require significant modification of today's diesel engines. In some cases, completely new engine designs may be needed. Even modified engines may be more complicated. Hybrid power systems work much like a diesel-electric locomotive and are quite complex.

Truck buying has gotten easier, but not all of the difficulty has been removed from the process. Deciding which engine and fuel option works best may be one of the biggest challenges facing truck buyers in the next decade. Making the wrong choice could be a costly mistake.