Alternative fuels on the rise

Reports of the death of the diesel engine have been greatly exaggerated, but the days of this power unit being the “one-size-fits-all” solution for most commercial vehicles are nearly over. Engineers and fleet managers need to bear this mind as they finalise 2018 vehicle replacement plans.

This is the gist of the message from Martin Flach, a hugely-experienced commercial vehicle engineer who is now Iveco UK’s alternative fuels director.

As his job title suggests, Flach is a keen advocate of alternatives to diesel. But he is pragmatic enough to recognise that in some operations diesel will continue to be the best choice for many years to come. He wants more done to explain the sound reasons for this to politicians and the public they represent.

“Let’s be honest, diesel hasn’t had a great press recently,” he concedes. “Dieselgate (the scandal over Volkswagen cheating diesel car emissions tests in the US and Europe) is behind much of that, though in reality the dice were being rolled against diesel long before that came along.”

Iveco Stralis X-Way tipper

Clean Air Zones will drive change in cities

Flach divides the planned introduction of clean-air zones by UK local authorities into two phases. The first of these, due to come into force in 2019, includes not only London but also Leeds, Birmingham, Nottingham and Derby. “Phase two, in 2020, adds Sheffield, Middlesbrough, Bath, Bristol, Coventry and several others,” he warns.

“London, as ever, remains a law unto itself. The T-charge (toxicity) scheme, introducing a charge for operators of pre-Euro IV vehicles went live in October 2017. London’s ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ) is already planned.” Controversially, its planned introduction date has been brought forward suddenly by Transport for London (TfL) to early April 2019, fully 17 months earlier than planned originally.

Trucks and vans failing to meet the ULEZ requirements face hefty charges, £20 per day for a van and £100 per day for entering the zone. But there is no need to panic and start a headlong rush away from all diesel engines in the face of these charges, Flach counsels. Truck diesel engines meeting Euro VI exhaust emission limits are clean enough to be exempt from the charge, he points out.

The proportion of trucks in service at present in the UK with Euro-VI diesel engines is already as high as 30%, he reckons, and this figure is expected to rise to 60% by 2020. Authorities behind all the UK’s new clean-air zones have accepted that Euro-VI diesel engines are “exceptionally clean”, maintains Flach, pointing to the dramatic cuts in emissions of particulates and oxides of nitrogen (NOx) from truck and bus diesel engines over the past 20 years.

“So diesel isn’t dead,” Flach emphasises. “It will remain in use for long-distance transport for years to come.”

Iveco Stralis NP
Iveco Stralis NP tractive unit running on LNG

Alternative options for urban operations

But it is a different story entirely for other types of operation. “In the urban environment, where distances are smaller and your vehicles will return to base of an evening, electricity will probably be the main choice,” says Flach.

“The heavier you get, the larger you get, the more gas is going to be the answer. Compressed natural gas or liquefied natural gas (CNG or LNG) is a clean fuel that can deliver the real-world practicality and economy so vital for longer distances.

“Gas delivers much lower noise and exhaust emissions too, even less than Euro VI diesels, and can show significant savings in total operating costs, up to 9% with the Iveco Stralis NP.”

Making informed decisions on truck specifications, including power sources, will be even more crucial in future than it is at present, stresses Flach, pointing to new Iveco models such as the Stralis NP tractive unit (running on LNG) and X-Way Iveco tipper (diesel-powered).

“The revolution has started,” he says. “The way we power our vehicles is changing today and will continue to change over the next few years. We are ready to help you find the best way forward.”

Tim Blakemore
Tim Blakemore
Tim Blakemore is an award-winning automotive journalist and the former editor of our sister title, Commercial Vehicle Engineer magazine. He is also the UK representative on the panel of judges for the biennial, pan-European Trailer Innovation Award scheme.