Some call it the messy middle. Others describe it as impossible and unprofitable. Whatever the terms, trucking fleet operators today are caught in the winds of change. In the face of heightened federal and state standards and growing customer demand to reduce Scope 3 greenhouse gas emissions, fleets need viable, immediate technologies to meet the mark.
Some argue that federal and state regulators are picking the “winners” for transportation decarbonization, favoring all-electric vehicles, fuel cells and hydrogen engines. These technologies can prove to be great choices in some use cases. But long-haul and heavy-duty fleet operators know they need other options. They see landmines afoot, including incomplete and unstable charging and fueling infrastructures, non-existent or unsafe repair and service systems, reduced mileage range and shrinking load weight limits.
For many, these market realities drive home the point that government should set standards and free markets should determine how to achieve them. One solution that garnered immediate support from two OEM leaders and industry veterans was ClearFlame Engine Technologies. Hear from Craig Barnes, ClearFlame chief product officer, and Dr. Cathy Choi, chief sustainability officer and VP of engineering, on why and how they found ClearFlame as a win-win choice for fleets, ESG-motivated companies and government decision-makers.
What brought you to ClearFlame?
Cathy: During my career with Caterpillar and Cummins, I reviewed hundreds of proposed new products. When I saw ClearFlame’s FuelAdaptive™ technology, I was intrigued. The existing scale and availability of ethanol means our solution can be implemented today and immediately impact greenhouse gas emissions. Our technology can also run on other locally produced fuels such as methanol and ammonia, making it viable across the globe.
It's also important that we can meet the needs of fleets both large and small. If large fleets adopt our upfit, that paves the way for smaller operators. Ninety-nine percent of U.S. businesses are small businesses, and many of them want to combat climate change. They struggle to do so because of limited options to affordably reduce carbon and minimize disruption to their operations. ClearFlame can provide a sustainable and profitable path for small companies and large fleets alike.
Craig: I was introduced to ClearFlame in mid-2017 by David Stout, the head of the SAE Global Automotive Mobility Innovation Challenge (GAMIC). He told me that there was this startup out of Stanford working on technology to create an ethanol-fueled heavy-duty engine and that they were looking for an industry advisor.
I met with ClearFlame co-founders Julie Blumreiter and BJ Johnson to learn more, and I walked away deeply impressed. I spent many years at John Deere and Cummins working on advanced technologies for commercial vehicle engines and powertrains, and reviewing many startup proposals. Most of them were not really viable. This was different.
I could see their visionary potential and their pragmatic applicability. I also connected with Julie and BJ’s sincerity and passion. They were eager to work with someone who could mold their ideas into something the industry could see and accept. I agreed to be the first industry advisor for ClearFlame.
What are the biggest challenges for fleets looking to reduce emissions and companies seeking to reduce Scope 3 emissions from transportation?
Cathy: Fleets are concerned about solutions that require a massive change in their behavior or deployment of large capital investments. The “uptime” of battery-electric vehicles remains a concern, particularly given their limited range and the lack of adequate high-speed charging infrastructure. Fleets are also concerned about the extensive technician retraining and expensive maintenance facility upgrades required for high voltage electricity, or gaseous fuels like hydrogen. There is also a perception that low-GHG fuels are not available, but that applies more to renewable diesel and RNG, and highlights why ClearFlame has focused on fuels with significant existing scale, like ethanol.
Craig: Costs of recent technologies, including the initial investment and operating costs for critical functions like repair and maintenance, pose a major concern and have slowed progress toward ESG goals. Fleets worry about the maturity and market readiness of new technologies, especially the low-carbon alternatives, and feel pressed by the proposed implementation dates for new regulations. They’re caught in a struggle for how to make the numbers work while also achieving greater sustainability.
What business considerations arise when purchasing trucks with zero-emissions from the tailpipe?
Cathy: Zero-emissions vehicles like battery-electric trucks face real constraints such as lower payload capacity due to battery weight, longer charging/fueling downtime, and mileage/range. These vehicles require new infrastructure for charging and a reliable green grid to enable widescale, sustainable adoption.
Craig: The costs of zero-emission battery-electric and fuel cell-electric trucks appear to be significantly higher than traditional diesel internal combustion engine trucks. Incentives can help, but it’s unclear how long public sector entities can continue offering subsidies, and also how fast production costs will decrease.
In addition, these vehicles, especially battery-electric, tend to be heavier, affecting the freight weight limits and hurting tight profit margins. Further, building the infrastructure, especially for battery-electric charging, is expensive and the lead times are exceedingly long.
Finally, zero-emission battery-electric and fuel cell-electric trucks require major changes in maintenance practices that cannot easily integrate into our existing national network of more than 300,000 diesel mechanics.
What does it take to make sure a product is market-worthy?
Cathy: Any market-worthy product must do the jobs that customers need done well and cost-efficiently. Fleet owners seek practical, attainable, profitable and sustainable business solutions. Their customers value immediate and long-term decarbonization that aligns with their ESG goals. And regulators must demonstrate that public policies encourage and make possible innovation that leads to a carbon-zero future.
Craig: The commercial vehicle industry requires significant validation of a product before they buy. They expect us to follow rigorous product design and analysis, engine/powertrain dynamometer testing, component testing, specialty vehicle testing (such as altitude and cold weather) and general vehicle field testing with a high number of actual road miles. These steps are in addition to ensuring the product meets regulatory requirements for emissions and safety.
How does ClearFlame perfect products for market?
Cathy: Our team of engineers and innovators applies more than 400 years in combined engine development and production experience in the energy to power industry.
Craig: ClearFlame, with the support of experienced industry professionals, has adopted and adapted the same commercial vehicle industry standards, processes and procedures for product development used by OEMs. Many of our staff participated in or led product launches at major OEMs. We also partner with test labs and component suppliers experienced in launching products in the commercial vehicle industry.
How can ClearFlame be confident its solution works — what does success look like?
Cathy: Success means widespread adoption of ClearFlame technology, especially in the transportation and power generation sectors. This isn’t simply good for us. It also is good for the planet with at least a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to existing diesel - and the potential for carbon negative emissions in the foreseeable future. We have won private and public funding and we are now running successful pilots. It’s clear we are on our way.
Craig: I call success the day when the ClearFlame solution merits the same awareness and consideration as battery-electric, fuel cell-electric, natural gas, and hydrogen internal combustion engines. All these solutions have their place, and all will be needed to achieve future climate change goals.