Until the natural gas infrastructure becomes more widespread across the U.S., diesel fuel will continue to be a necessary evil. That seemed to be the conclusion of an article appearing in this morning's Wall Street Journal ("Will Truckers Ditch Diesel?"). It stated that today 3.2 million big rigs traveling U.S. roads burn 25 billion gallons of diesel annually and 7 million single-unit trucks like those used by FedEx and UPS consume another 10 billion gallons.
Although it is expected that within a few years one in three trucks produced by Navistar will run on natural gas, getting rid of diesel will be a long hard road for manufacturers of alternative fuel vehicles. But what I find interesting is what's happening off-road. Makers of big forklifts like Hyster are developing vehicles that are so stingy with fuel that these manufacturers hope to attract the attention of the ports and businesses sprouting up on the east coast to take advantage of the Panama Canal expansion. Jonathan Dawley, president of Hyster Distribution, told me he hopes these ports will step back from their heavy reliance on cranes and take a second look at forklifts. This is where innovations like the variable displacement pump can make a huge difference in fuel consumption. Dawley said this pump simplifies and reduces the flow of the hydraulic system so fluid is used on demand.
“That reduces the wear on the hydraulic system but more importantly reduces the power required to run the truck,” he explained. “That helps support a fuel efficiency savings in our jumbo trucks. We can save up to eight tanker trucks of fuel in a given year on one jumbo truck.”
He added that that feature is making its way down into the smaller trucks and that his company plans to send that message to distributors planning to spread their presence into the east coast port infrastructure.
For example, Walmart is looking at building more boutique type store environments as opposed to big boxes. That means less overhead to run these stores and sending smaller shipments of on-demand product to fill their orders on a day-to-day basis. This is changing distribution strategies, including modal choices and warehouse placement. It's also changing lift truck usage patterns, according to Dawley.
“It isn't what they're doing with lift trucks as much as where they're putting them in port applications as dock-to-stock takes hold—right from the ship and moving it out to these smaller distribution points,” he said.
To take advantage of those changes, lift truck manufacturers will have to make some strategic changes themselves.
“Where you may have had eight folks focused on jumbo trucks or IC engine trucks in a break bulk operation at a port you now have to send somebody in that can sell warehousing and distribution style equipment in that same territory,” he said. “It's a totally different makeup of the customer base that's been there for the past 80 years.”
As the lift truck population on the east coast expands with the logistics infrastructure, it will be interesting to watch how the natural gas fueling infrastructure develops to meet that demand.