Better Wheels
July 28, 2023
On Energy Transition
August 11, 2023

What Works

Toward Cleaner Skies

Picture fuel-efficient vehicles, cars and trucks alike, crisscrossing the ribbons of highways and access roads and streets of America. Their contributions to pollution? Water vapor. Nothing more. Not polluting at all.

With advances in the way we fuel our vehicles, that scenario is not so unreasonable. Hydrogen-powered and battery-powered technologies are making great strides, and we certainly applaud their race to dominate the markets.

In the meantime, we have diesel fuel as the main method of getting our commercial trucks from point A to point B. And diesel tends to run dirty, sending up its (relatively large) share of carbon dioxide emissions into the air.

Part of the challenge is in attracting enough companies to embrace the new fuel technologies and put them into service. That often involves investing in retrofitting existing systems or purchasing completely new kinds of fleets. So, the cost-benefit ratio comes roaring into the mix: is it worth the up-front investment?

The variables here include:

Size and Strength of the Competition. Companies have been campaigning to box out the competition for centuries In the business arena. (“Our wheel turns better.” “Our catapult smashes the competition.” Avis: “We Try Harder.”) And so it is with fuel. As long as crude can get pumped, Big Oil will always try to marginalize the alternative fuel industry. That’s not cynical; that’s business.

Viability and Marketing. Remember that Betamax, the tape system that Sony developed, was the better technology. VHS had the better marketing. So much of our consumer products depend on supply-and-demand flows and positioning and a measure of luck (as in: being in the right place at the right time.)

As for fueling our trucking industry, along comes a curiosity. Compressed natural gas (CNG) emits much less pollution than diesel, which would go a long way toward reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. CNG has a lower price point than diesel, it’s abundantly found, and vehicles using it are safer than those using traditional fuel.

So, why isn’t CNG everywhere? Part of that is the distribution network; you have to build out the system of fueling stations geared specifically for CNG pumping. And part of that is the cost of retrofitting trucks to be able to employ the CNG, or buying those new fleets. All of that requires a substantial investment.

While it’s a viable and cleaner fuel, CNG generally seems to be a transitional fuel, as we move toward that still-elusive goal of net zero carbon emissions on our roadways.