OEMs Discuss the Future of Fuel-Efficiency
Did you know that it would take 23 of today’s clean diesel backhoes to equal the emissions from one backhoe sold in 1997? Facts like this one, shared by the Diesel Technology Forum, illustrate how far equipment manufacturers have come in a relatively short period of time, and yet the industry continues to raise the bar.
In the fall of 2020, experts from Caterpillar, CNH Industrial and Volvo Construction Equipment shared their thoughts about the future of fuel types and machine efficiency during a webinar presented by the Diesel Technology Forum.
Machines & Fuel Efficiency
Already, equipment with Tier IV Final emissions technology reduces criteria pollutants and fuel consumption in many applications. However “a clean and productive power source” is only the beginning, according to David Milam of Caterpillar Inc., Peoria, Illinois.
Also important are electric drive powertrain systems, which decouple the engine speed from the vehicle speed, enabling optimized engine operation that results in lower fuel consumption and improved productivity. Caterpillar already offers a number of products with this technology and have several more planned for the future. “Machines with electric drive powertrains are just another way customers can improve the efficiency of their diesel powered equipment.”
Fuel-efficiency has been integral to the way CNH Industrial, the parent company of Case Construction Equipment, has approached Tier IV equipment. For example, the company utilizes selective catalytic reduction technology that doesn’t require exhaust gas recirculation.
“This helps create the most efficient combustion that we can and still meet the emission standards,” said Regulatory Affairs Manager Chris Walters, “so fuel efficiency is maximized with the selection of those technologies.”
Despite these significant improvements, the panelists agreed that the focus of their efforts is beginning to shift to solutions beyond the machine itself.
“When you look at the machine and the combustion process itself, there’s a limited return on more research and development within that focus,” said Ray Gallant, Vice President of Product Management and Productivity at Volvo CE. “We’ll keep making them better, but we’ve gotten most of the big benefits.”
Operators & Fuel Efficiency
“We are now looking more towards operators and how we can help them operate the machine more efficiently and let the machine do what it does the best possible way in terms of fuel use,” Gallant said, citing the value of autonomous systems. “The more we can automate, the more we can help the operator do their job efficiently. The more efficiently they do their jobs, the less fuel they’re going to consume.”
Volvo CE’s Assist System is one such example, Gallant pointed out. Another is Cat’s Accugrade system, which Milam said results in up to 50 percent better grading productivity.
Telematics can also assist with improved efficiency, Walters added. Case’s Sitewatch telematics system, for example, allows users to remotely monitor their fleet’s data, including uptime, productivity, fuel consumption and more. Sitewatch can also be used to automatically and remotely shut off equipment that has been idling for long periods of time.
“Historically, we’ve seen a lot of diesel engines idling,” Walters said. “That just isn’t necessary with today’s technology and it’s something we try to discourage, but old habits die hard. Technology like this can help overcome those habits very easily.”
Data & Fuel Efficiency
Another aspect of fuel efficiency beyond the machine itself, Gallant said, is improving overall site efficiencies and operation, including interconnectivity of the machines on any given job site and matching productivity rates between machines.
“As we get the machines tuned to be the best they can be, and the operators operating in the best possible way, then we have to look at how to get the machines on the site to work together in a more coordinated way,” Gallant said. Reducing the overall fuel use of a job site by a few percentage points, he added, will have a much bigger impact than reducing a machine’s fuel use by a fraction of a percentage point. “That’s where we see big benefits. …There are a lot of doors opening up in the next few years that will help us move to the next frontier.”
Energy Alternatives & Fuel-Efficiency
Although there are numerous strategies to reduce fuel use, at the end of the day, every machine needs power. That’s where alternative energy and fuels may come into play.
Gallant has seen a big push to develop more electric machines. However, electric isn’t the only alternative. For example, Case’s methane-powered wheel loader nicknamed Project Tetra for construction and waste management applications. CNH is particularly interested in progressing natural gas engines, Walters said, adding that its FPT Industrial branch has been developing the use of compressed natural gas (CNG) in other sectors, such as commercial vehicles and agriculture products, in Europe.
Milam mentioned that a number of Cat customers are already successfully using biofuels and renewable diesel for their offroad machines. “For these customers, these fuels are providing a similar power and performance as traditional diesel, but without the carbon emissions,” Milam said. “The challenge is with energy density.”
“Diesel now has the advantage that its power density is high which means you have to transport less fuel to the job site,” Gallant said, “but we see a bright future for some of these alternative fuels, especially as the technology develops and we make the machines, operators and job sites more efficient.”
Alternative fuel and energy use will also vary from machine to machine. “Construction products are built to do different things and sometimes the particular propulsion system necessary for one machine is different from another,” Walters said. “It won’t be one size fits all, especially with off-road equipment.”
According to Milam, the projects of the future will likely use a variety of fuel and energy sources and OEMs will have a variety of equipment capable of operating on various types of fuel and energy.
“We’ll see an array of energy sources, power conversion technology, smart machines, connected equipment, and control solutions all working together to build a better world,” Milam said. “The future will increasingly be a story of ‘and’ rather than a story of ‘or.’”