Diesels Troublesome, But '10s Are Better

Tom Berg, Truck Editor | October 14, 2010

The economy’s recovering, isn’t it? Manufacturing is up and so are freight shipments, so much of the trucking industry is in a rebound. Truck builders report higher sales, and several have announced recalls of assembly workers to support a substantial increase in production. Economic salvation might be at hand.

Construction, however, is still sluggish. Road and bridge projects have been boosted by federal stimulus money, and more might be coming. But housing starts are the lowest in 47 years, and economists say housing can’t heal until the private sector creates more jobs. That’s happening, but it’s slow. Still, there is enough improvement that a few builders say there is interest, anyway, by some construction-truck operators in buying new vehicles.

Notwithstanding what’s been happening in the general economy, truck manufacturers have carried forward their plans for cleaner-burning diesels to meet more stringent 2010 diesel exhaust-gas-emissions limits. The main target of the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been oxides of nitrogen, which have been all but eliminated, along with particulates—soot—that were snuffed by 2007 limits. Both were previously reduced by the October ’02/January ’04 rules, which also required reduction of other pollutants.

Thus in one decade, truck and engine manufacturers have faced three major steps in exhaust-gas-emissions reductions. These have required each to spend many hundreds of millions of dollars to develop new technologies and integrate them into their vehicles. New to truck diesels in this time frame are exhaust-gas recirculation (EGR), diesel particulate filters (DPFs), selective catalytic reduction (SCR), and/or advanced combustion techniques, and larger, more capable cooling systems.

At each of the three steps, truck users have had to deal with stiff up-charges of $2,500 to $10,000 per truck, depending on vehicle weight class. For a typical heavy truck, these have added up to $40,000 over the 10 years, according to one estimate.

And each new set of technologies has proved troublesome, to a greater or lesser degree, sometimes causing on-the-road breakdowns with attendant downtime and disruption in cargo deliveries. One result is a suit brought by a Texas law firm against an engine maker and two dealers on behalf of three frustrated truck fleets (see sidebar).

But there have been problems with all diesels built since October 2002, when exhaust-gas recirculation was first used on domestically made diesels, and 2007, when particulate filters appeared.

The 2010 engines seem more rugged and reliable, according to early fleet reports, and they deliver better fuel economy. Builder representatives now love to talk about their 2010 engines, but do a verbal soft shoe when asked about previous models. They do say that they’ve been working hard to resolve those problems and diffuse issues, then resume talking about their 2010 engines.

Builders have backed their engines as long as they are in warranty. For instance, they have repeatedly replaced diesel particulate filters whose ceramic honeycomb structures sometimes tend to crack. A DPF costs thousands of dollars, so warranty costs are high. But when warranties run out, customers are on their own. Customers are now advised to buy extended warranties, which some builders offer, either when the engines are new or during their basic warranty periods. Those who didn’t have been sorry, a sales source says.

Another problem is shorter engine life. Customers who once expected a highway engine to go 1 million miles before major work are learning that life has fallen to 700,000 miles or less. Engines in vocational trucks suffer problems because their DPFs don’t properly “regenerate”—burn off soot accumulated in the filter—and engines then shut down, and trucks have had to be towed in so a mechanic can electronically order the regen. All such problems are solvable eventually, but grief rules owners’ lives in the meantime.

Meanwhile, vertical integration—the practice of a truck manufacturer exerting increasing control over what components he uses in his vehicles—has greatly reduced the number of engines, transmissions, axles and other parts available on heavy trucks. It’s been more than a quarter century since a buyer could choose from three brands of engines, two or three makes of transmissions, and three or four axle producers, among other details. Now the buyer can pick from one or two engine makes, one or two transmission products, and probably a single axle line.

This has caused great lament among some fleet managers. However, if viewed from a historical perspective, vertical integration in recent years is merely a return to what was practiced in the 1930s and ’40s, when each major builder had its own gasoline engine and gearbox, and touted their ruggedness and reliability as reasons to choose a White, Reo or Diamond T over competing truck makes. Today the same thing is happening, to a greater or lesser degree, in diesels, while builders have culled drive-train suppliers to only one or two.

That the above nameplates and companies are no longer with us represents another piece of history—industry consolidation—that has been repeated. Sterling is another truck make that flourished for a time, then floundered, then was absorbed by a stronger company and killed off, only to re-emerge under different ownership, then die again. Ten years ago there were more than a dozen heavy-truck makes; now there are seven, and four are owned by two corporations.

As before, companies were able to squelch competitors and eliminate duplicate product lines during hard economic times. Depression and recession eliminate the weak, but so does industry deregulation, as happened to for-hire trucking 30 years ago, resulting in slashed profits that work their way back to the manufacturers. That truck prices have climbed steeply is partly due to generally higher prices for basic commodities that were once used mainly by Western industrialized nations. China, India, Brazil and others have emerged as major economies whose industries demand steel, aluminum, rubber and everything else that goes into trucks.

The next regulation

But the major driver of truck-engine development in the past 20 years is government regulation. How could the federal EPA and California’s Air Resources Board (CARB) get away with such severe regulations that add so much cost and complexity to trucks, and yes, off-road machinery? Because people want a cleaner environment, activists worked hard to organize themselves, and they pressured Congress and state legislatures to pass laws that forbid pollution.

EPA and CARB derive their regulatory powers from those laws, and regulatory authorities have decreed ever more difficult requirements. These were developed under both political parties in the 1990s and ’00s. The last three steps for diesel exhaust by EPA in this decade were mainly designed and promulgated under George W. Bush’s Republican administration—something never mentioned by pro-GOP business people who freely take cracks at the current Democrat president, Barack Obama.

Yet there’s blame (or praise) due Obama for his EPA’s declaration of war against greenhouse gases in general and carbon dioxide (CO2) in particular. The story is now familiar: After much study and analysis, many scientists say these man-made gases are responsible for global warming that’s pushing Earth toward calamities such as rising ocean levels that will inundate coastal cities.

The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is many times what it was in previous episodes of warming, they say after analyzing bubbles of air in ice cores taken from ancient glaciers. The extra CO2 intensifies the sun’s heat and raises temperatures worldwide, and it must be coming from humankind’s massive industrial activity and the burning of carbon-based fuels that produces carbon dioxide. Other scientists say that man-made CO2 is a tiny fraction of all the carbon dioxide in the air, but the anti-CO2ers have the upper hand, and political leaders have generally lined up with them.

Therefore, cutting CO2 will be the next assault against diesels and other engines, and builders expect this to come in 2014. However, regulators then will probably do it not so much by dictating use of exotic fuels—which they someday might—but by demanding higher efficiency. Despite development of electric vehicles, most trucks and off-road mobile equipment will need to use petroleum, and it will remain a major source of energy for some time. But CO2 emissions can be cut if everyone uses less fuel.

That’s why EPA is formulating fuel economy standards for medium- and heavy-duty trucks that some people are comparing to the CAFÉ mile-per-gallon standards for automobiles. But the trucking and truck-building industries seem to have convinced EPA that commercial vehicles vary so much in weight and duty cycles that MPG numbers are almost meaningless. So EPA is preparing use-based standards. The effect is that manufacturers will have to produce vehicles that use less fuel.

This can be done by increasing the thermal efficiency of engines and by improving trucks in order to reduce the work that engines must do. Thermal efficiency of the latest truck diesels now approaches 50 percent, which means the engine effectively employs only half the energy contained in fuel. The rest is lost in heat, through the cooling system and the exhaust.

Some exhaust energy is now captured by turbocharging, so adding another turbo is one way to use more of that energy, and several engines now on the market do so. But while most of these engines use the added turbo to compress air to reduce emissions, only one—Detroit’s DD15—uses a second turbo geared to the engine to boost power and/or economy. Here’s another way: Cummins is developing a steaming device that will use exhaust heat to boil a fluid, whose compressed vapors will spin a separate turbocharger, which will be geared to the flywheel.

Why not use heat-resistant materials in the combustion chambers to burn the fuel more efficiently? This was tried in the early 1980s in “adiabatic” engines, which needed no cooling systems, because heat was put to work rather than rejected. The Army experimented with ceramics in pistons and valves that withstand higher amounts of heat and converted more fuel energy into power. Alas, the ceramics were too brittle for everyday duty, and work on adiabatic engines faded away.

Hybrid drive systems can cut fuel use by about 30 percent, users of diesel-electric and diesel-hydraulic hybrid trucks have testified. But these are mostly pick-up-and-delivery vehicles and trash trucks, which may make many stops and starts in a normal day. Dumpers and mixers don’t stop nearly as often, so they can’t capture braking energy, which is then reused to “launch” the truck.

Cutting weight from trucks and reducing air drag are other methods of saving fuel. Aluminum is the major material for weight reduction, and its use in bodies and air and fuel tanks is common. A more recent material is composite plastic sheeting, which weighs even less than aluminum. Meanwhile, smooth-sided bodies are more aerodynamic, and some owners have found that their trucks or tractors with smooth, rib-less bodies or trailers get better fuel economy. They’re also easier to wash, for those who care about looks.

But, there’s a low-tech solution: Simply turning off engines whenever possible cuts fuel use and reduces exhaust emissions. Examples: Waiting in line to load or unload; at railroad crossings or long traffic-light cycles; and while drivers take work or lunch breaks. Engines on mixer trucks have to keep running to spin their concrete-laden drums, but when the truck is empty, engines could be shut down. Dump truck engines can often be shut down, but drivers don’t, because they want to keep their cabs cool or warm, or, more often, simply because that’s what they do. Got a problem with that?



Frustrated Customers Sue Caterpillar Over Acert Failures


Citing continual breakdowns, ineffective repairs and financial losses from disrupted operations, some frustrated fleet owners have sued Caterpillar Inc., along with the truck and engine dealers who sold and unsuccessfully tried to fix the trouble-prone heavy-duty diesels. 

A Texas lawsuit chronicles problems with the Cat C15 Acert engines produced with exhaust-emissions equipment designed to meet federal limits imposed in January 2007. The suit involves 90 Cat-powered trucks run by three fleets. No 2010-spec engines are involved.

Stories of numerous problems with all diesels, since the EPA’s October ‘02/January ‘04 limits took effect, have since been circulating in the industry. But fleet executives have usually tried to get satisfaction directly from builders rather than through lawsuits, partly because they have to deal with the builders in the future. That’s no longer the case with Caterpillar, which left the truck-engine business late last year, just before EPA’s 2010 regulations took effect.  

Miller, Curtis & Weisbrod LLC, of Dallas, filed the suit March 4 in a Bowie County circuit court, though it only came to light in mid-summer. The firm says more fleets have joined the complaint, and it is advertising for disgruntled owners of Cat C13 and C15 engines to contact its attorneys. As is customary in such suits, the defendants are not commenting, but the law firm has. 

The suit names as defendants Caterpillar Inc., plus its “agents,” Warren Power & Machinery, the Cat dealer, and Rush Truck Centers of Texas, a large Peterbilt dealer. Both dealers have locations in Texarkana, Texas, where the Cat-powered trucks were sold and serviced.  

Plaintiffs are Thomason Trucking Inc., Paul Trucking Inc., and Tapley Forestry Service, all based in Oklahoma. They bought a total of 90 trucks with C15 engines in 2007 and 2008. “However, the engines were defective when purchased” by the fleets, the suit says. 

“Defendant Warren and Defendant Rush have been in the business of selling Caterpillar engines for many years and knew or should have known of the defects to the Caterpillar engines,” the suit continues. “Not long after Plaintiffs received these engines, Plaintiffs began to experience problems with the trucks these engines were installed in, which put the trucks out of service.”

Consequently, the fleets “suffered substantial financial losses and other damages,” the suit charges. It does not specify monetary amounts, but probably will when the law firm amends the suit, said attorney Warren Armstrong, who is working with Miller, Curtis & Weisbrod’s lead lawyer on the case, Clay Miller.

The suit charges fraud, breach of contract, breach of implied and express warranties, and violation of the Texas Deceptive Trade and Practices Act. Under this law, the trucking companies are consumers who can sue Caterpillar and its dealers, the suit says. And because of the alleged fraud, defendants are entitled to treble damages.

“In particular, it’s the regeneration system” in the C15 Acert engines’ exhaust—“clogged injector heads, sensor malfunctions, something wrong with fuel line—for whatever reason, it doesn’t regenerate as it’s supposed to,” Armstrong said of the diesel particulate filter. “The ECM will then tell the engine to shut down. 

“When you’re in business to haul over the road and this happens, it’s very difficult to continue” because trucks and drivers are stranded until repairs are made, Warren said. And the breakdowns happen repeatedly, because dealer technicians can’t properly fix them. “They’re scared,” he said of truck owners, “because you don’t know where it will happen... It’s not if, but when” the malfunctions and breakdowns will occur.

Before leaving the North American truck-engine market, Caterpillar produced EPA-’07 Acert-model diesels, and many were installed in Peterbilt, Kenworth, Freightliner and International trucks. Many Acert engines are in service and Caterpillar had promised to back them, but customers have said they have gone through repeated fixes and meet constantly with Caterpillar reps, but the problems persist and dealer technicians cannot fix them. 

Fleet executives have complained that Caterpillar representatives “walked away from us” when their engines became problematic. That might be another way of saying that Caterpillar and other builders have mostly stopped “policy” repairs, in which the builders, seeking to maintain some goodwill, pay for work after the engines are out of warranty. Those days are gone, sources say. 

And many customers remain loyal to Cat truck engines, said a source not connected to the Texas case. The engines can be reliable if dealer service departments know how to maintain them, and some do. Among specialized requirements for Acert diesels, other sources say, are regular servicing of crankcase filters and the seventh fuel-injection system—the “flamethrower”—in the exhaust stream. Also, fluid levels must be kept up and oil changed on schedule.

All builders have had “a ton of problems” with engines produced since emissions regulations were first seriously tightened in late 2002, said a contract fleet manager, also not involved in the Texas case. In general, engines don’t run long before major problems begin, they don’t last as long before rebuilding as previous engines did, and customers can’t understand why. 

However, said the manager, who has served as an expert witness in previous suits, “I’d much rather appear for the plaintiffs [the builders], because they usually have a solid case. When you go in there and look at the [complaining] fleets, you usually find that they don’t have a maintenance program. They can’t show records of any organized maintenance, even oil changes. Sometimes you find that they haven’t changed oil for 75,000 miles, or they really don’t know if they have at all.” 




Navistar Trades Charges with Its Competitors


Navistar International is the only North American diesel maker to avoid selective catalytic reduction (SCR) for 2010 engines, and instead uses Advanced Exhaust-Gas Recirculation (A-EGR) to cleanse exhaust gases of NOx “in cylinder.” Major advantages of this method are less equipment hung on the chassis and 300 to 400 pounds less weight. A-EGR also relieves users of the “hassle” of topping off tanks that hold the diesel-exhaust fluid needed by SCR. 

But Navistar executives went beyond praising their A-EGR advantages and instead have aggressively attacked competitors’ use of SCR. They charged that diesel-exhaust fluid, or DEF, is toxic and perishable, especially in high temperatures; will not be readily available; will be high priced; and represents a technology that will soon become outmoded. 

Competitors—basically all other companies who make and/or sell diesel-powered trucks in North America—say Navistar’s charges are absolutely false. DEF fumes will not knock out drivers (it smells like household ammonia), and if spilled will result in nothing worse than causing grass to grow where maybe it shouldn’t, though it will corrode certain metals, which is why DEF tanks are plastic. DEF will last about a year if stored in moderate temperatures. And outlets for sales of DEF have sprung up around the country, and continue to expand. Recent bulk sales have averaged about $2.70 per gallon—less than the diesel fuel that it effectively displaces at the rate of 2 to 5 percent, according to Cummins (though in jug amounts, DEF costs much more).

SCR has been used successfully for several years in Europe and Japan, and is therefore proven, competitors say. As the infrastructure for DEF expands here, it’s more likely to stay in place. Users report surprisingly good fuel economy with 2010-spec diesels and fewer problems than with previous-model engines, so the technology is working and likely to continue as long as diesels are a motive force in trucks. 

Slow, if reviving, truck sales mean not many ’10-model diesels are out there, though competitors say they’ve built tens of thousands; in mid August, Cummins alone announced that it had built 26,000. Navistar has made far fewer of its 2010 A-EGR diesels, competitors charge. In September, Navistar’s sales vice president, Jim Hebe, said the company had produced and delivered about 4,500 ’10-model diesels, mostly MaxxForce 7 V-8s, but also MxF 10 and 13 inline 6s. 

Most of Navistar’s International trucks built since January, when the 2010 limits took effect, and well into this year, have had pre-2010 diesels, including Cummins’ ISX. Use of the “legacy” engines built before January is entirely legal, and is part of Navistar’s “2010 strategy,” Hebe had said last year. Mack Trucks estimates that Navistar stockpiled about 25,000 pre-’10 engines. And competitors had switched to 2010-spec diesels by early this year. 

Navistar meanwhile has sued EPA for allowing competitors to use SCR, charging that the guidelines were written outside the agency’s usual rule-making procedures. EPA agreed to hold a series of official hearings in which SCR rules and engines’ use of the system would be examined, and Navistar agreed to drop its suit. 

In a hearing in California, Navistar presented findings that SCR engines will keep running even if their DEF tanks run dry, or if filled with plain water. They also charged that EPA made rule exceptions that allow competitors’ engines to run for long periods from cold start-up without the SCR systems working, and the engines therefore make excessive amounts of NOx until they warm up. Competitors answered that they could alter electronic programming to correct the flaws that Navistar uncovered. 

About the same time, Navistar announced results of on-road tests that showed one of its engines used less fuel than competitors’ combined consumption of fuel and DEF—“fluid economy,” Navistar calls it. However, the competitor diesels were of 15-liter displacement, a Detroit DD15 and a Cummins ISX, while Navistar’s was the 12.4-liter MaxxForce 13—not a fair comparison, competitors said. Navistar executives explained that only the larger competitive engines were available when they commissioned the tests last spring. Competitors said they’d love to run their own tests using International trucks with 2010-spec Navistar diesels, but by mid-summer they didn’t exist.  

So the charges and counter charges continue. But ultimately the market—truck buyers and users—will decide who’s right.