It may be small comfort as you sit stalled behind an 18-wheeler in traffic, sucking soot down into your lungs from the clouds of diesel exhaust. But our air's actually getting cleaner all the time. Makers of big diesel engines have tinkered furiously with their products in the past few years to bring them into compliance with the first phase of the EPA's tough anti-pollution rules. And they've made real strides in getting the lead—or more precisely, the nitrogen oxide and particulates—out; nitrogen oxide alone is expected to be down a third from 1998 levels by the end of this year. Now they're gearing up to meet the next phase of the agency's aggressive timetable. With luck, Americans everywhere will be inhaling far fewer particulates and a lot less nitrogen oxide (NOx) by 2010.
But there's a price to pay for cleaning up this act. The new low-emissions engines introduced in October 2002 cost more than their predecessors—anywhere from $2,500 to $4,000 more per unit, according to Fleet Owner magazine. They also burn fuel more freely. And those are just the quantifiable concerns. What's really giving fleet operators the chills are the unknowns: Will the new engines need more frequent maintenance? Will they stand up to the day-in/day-out demands of real-world hauling conditions? Will they last as long as the older, non-compliant models?
The engine manufacturers themselves are unhappy about the uncertainties, but they point out that they've had to meet what they consider a tough set of standards in a very short time. The first phase of the EPA's rules, which called for lowering both NOx and particulates (soot), were originally set to take effect in 2004. But as part of a $1 billion 1998 settlement arising from an EPA "enforcement action" against engine makers for alleged testing irregularities, "several engine manufacturers had to sign a consent decree with the EPA to move the standards ahead to 2002," explains Bill Gouse, vice president of engineering at the American Trucking Associations (ATA), based in Alexandria, Va.
Moving up the deadline meant scaling down the testing. And that's what worries truckers."While we supported the 2004 standard," says Gouse,"we weren't able to test the product as we would have liked in time for the 2002 pull ahead, so there were a lot of concerns about the new engines." Adds Tom Freiwald, senior vice president of marketing for Detroit Diesel, "We worked closely with the EPA and we wanted the new engine introduction process to go as smoothly as possible. But the truck manufacturers and their customers would have preferred to test the technology before it was int roduced. They usually get two years to do this, and that didn't happen this time."
Not ready for prime time?
Given the time constraints for compliance, most manufacturers opted to outfit their engines with cooled exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) hardware to cut NOx emissions. Under this system, much of the exhaust stream is recirculated, cooled and then reintroduced into the combustion chamber, where it's burned off.
The fix was quick, as fixes go, but it's also somewhat experimental. Because this technology's largely unproven, many fleet owners fear that the engines' longevity may be compromised. "We'd like to stay on the same [engine] life cycle of about 800,000 miles," says Steve Duley, vice president of purchasing for Schneider National of Green Bay, Wis."Logic would tell you that with the new technology, the new engines won't last as long, but right now it's too early to tell."
Another concern has been the amount of maintenance the low-emissions engines will require,though the manufacturers downplay this one."The standard used to be oil changes at 15,000 to 25,000 miles, although changes with our engines were typically at 35,000 miles," says Tom Kieffer, executive director of marketing at Cummins, based in Columbus, Ind. "With the new engines, we recommend changing at 25,000 miles, which is still above standard."
But Gouse says that this one's too early to call."In some of the new engines,exhaust is cycled back into the oil,so the oil must do more work," he reports. "So we really don't know yet how this will play out."
Perhaps the truckers' biggest concern has been fuel economy. The EGR technology is said to cut fuel efficiency anywhere from 3 percent all the way to 15 percent, depending on who you talk to."This is the first time we've had a reduction in fuel economy from new engines," Gouse notes.
Freiwald of Detroit Diesel counters that the engine manufacturers are continually working to improve fuel economy, and the industry can expect improvements in this area in the future. "We have to be sensitive," he says. "The fuel economy issue hasn't been as bad as people had predicted, but it is a loss." In fact, Freiwald believes that as a whole,the en gines have perform ed mu ch bet ter than pred icted . "People who tried to get the standard delayed based their arguments on the worst-case scenario," he says. "The issues were unknown then," he says, "but most of them haven't come to fruition."
Those assurances apparently weren't enough for fleet operators, however. Many hastily revised their spending plans last year and pre-bought trucks equipped with engines made prior to the October 2002 deadline. Ann Arbor, Mich. -based Con-Way Transportation Services, for instance, pre-bought all of its truck needs for 2003. Con- Way,which operates three regional less-than-truckload carriers that provide service across the United States, bought 400 new trucks before the October 2002 deadline kicked in, forestalling the need to purchase any trucks in 2003. "And we're not planning on buying any in 2004 either," says Doug Stotlar, COO and executive vice president for the company. "Our concern was that when technology changes this quickly, it's not given an adequate test period."
Schneider National, based in Green Bay, Wis., also prebought tractors. "There weren't any engines available for testing to help us make a decision about the technology," says Duley. "We did our best to help delay the standard, but that didn't work."
Schneider bought about a third more trucks than it normally would have for 2003 in advance of the new standard. Since that time, the company has also purchased 50 trucks with the new engines to begin testing their performance and will start adding some of the trucks to its fleet in the coming months.
This spike in demand disrupted operations not only for the engine manufacturers, but for the truck manufacturers as well. Many had to go from one or two shifts to three on short notice in order to meet the sudden demand for vehicles equipped with the pre-standard engines.
Yet most of the engine manufacturers insist they were able to weather the pre-buy storm as well as the ensuing sales drought. "There was about a two- to three-month drop-off," admits Kieffer of Cummins, "but it wasn't as significant as had been predicted. We're at or exceeding our plan for market size at this point in the year."
Too much, too soon?
Fleets won't be able to put off equipment purchases indefinitely, however; at some point, they'll have to make the switch. And when they do, they'll have to choose between two competing technologies. Two of the Big Three engine manufacturers—Cummins and Detroit Diesel—met the 2002 EPA standard by adding EGR technology to their new engines; the third, Caterpillar, took a different route, developing advanced combustion emission reduction technology (ACERT) . But because it has only recently been able to put its ACERT technology to work in its engines, Caterpillar has had to pay fines for its out-of-compliance engines in the interim.
Yet Caterpillar dismisses the fines, which averaged $3,000 per engine, as a small price to pay for the added development time."We knew we couldn't have the ACERT technology available in time for the 2002 deadline," says spokesman Carl Volz. "But the ACERT technology is revolutionary and will certify our engines in time for the next deadline."
That will come in 2007, when the final stages of the EPA's anti-pollution mandate start to kick in. The 2007 standards, which focus on further reducing NOx and particulates, have the fleet owners seriously worried. According to Stotlar, none of the engine manufacturers has yet been able to demonstrate a clearly delineated strategy for meeting the stand a rds even though they must be ready for testing the new technology by 2004.
At this point, the industry's best hope for meeting the NOx limits appears to be installing an aftertreatment device known as an adsorber. But that won't be cheap. Stotlar of Con-Way estimates the cost of installing NOx adsorbers on engines at anywhere from $4,000 to $15,000 apiece, and he predicts another large equipment pre-buy prior to 2007. "Those buying and using the engines will have to pass that cost along to the consumer," he says."We support clean air," adds Duley of Schneider."But these standards are too much to absorb, too quickly."