Moving away from oil is something being promoted in many areas. One of the debates is the use and production of alternative fuels. For fleet managers, the decision of whether to purchase alternative fuel vehicles means weighing up cost, reliability, and environmental concern.
There are both advantages and disadvantages to alternative fuels, and some things fleet managers should consider:
1. Biodiesel is one of the best alternative fuels available – and all diesel powered vehicles can run on it without special equipment (in fact, many large farms now make their own biodiesel to power farm equipment). Therefore, fleet managers may be able to make use of biodiesel without purchasing new equipment. However, this does mean finding a source for the fuel itself, and biodiesel cannot always be purchased at the pump. (It can sometimes be made out of used vegetable oil, but this does require a conversion).
2. Both biodiesel and ethanol are plant-based – however, they are made from plants that are also used as food. Therefore, there are some arguments against them from a sustainability perspective, especially as the plants are often grown using petroleum-based fertilizers.
3. Alternative fuels can be more expensive. The greater price of ethanol is one reason why few vehicles are made to run on it entirely – instead, it is mixed with gasoline at the pump. Biodiesel is also more expensive.
4. Electric vehicles can still have a more limited range than gasoline vehicles and charging takes longer than refueling. This is becoming less and less of a concern with significant improvements to battery technology, but a traditional diesel heavy truck has a range of 900 miles, whilst the Tesla Semi has a range of 500 (which is considerably longer than other all-electric heavy trucks). Range is definitely a concern if your vehicles are routinely driven on long hauls, but may not be an issue if you are, for example, focusing primarily on last mile delivery. Electric vehicles also require fast charging stations, which are easier to find in some regions than others.
5. On the other hand, electric vehicles need less maintenance and may last longer than traditional internal combustion, given they have far fewer moving parts. Combined with the fact that the electricity they use costs less than diesel or gasoline, going all-electric could significantly reduce fleet expenses and downtime caused by maintenance.
6. Some manufacturers of diesel vehicles consider the use of biodiesel to void the warranty, often because of its highly variable quality.
7. Compressed natural gas is extremely cheap and burns clean, but is hard to find and has a very limited range (it has been used by some bus companies and may be a good option for short range delivery).
8. Hydrogen fuel is even harder to find and the fuel cells are expensive. Also, hydrogen is made from natural gas and is thus not actually sustainable at all, at least without a great increase in technology.
9. Technology is moving so quickly right now that a fleet manager who rushes to buy a new fleet may miss out on a key development that could make things cheaper and easier or completely change the equation as to which alternative fuel is best.
Alternative fuels may be a no-brainer in some circumstances. For example, as range increases, the higher pickup and speed of new all-electric semi-trucks are likely to start to push diesel trucks out of the market, especially with the lower maintenance cost. Electric vehicles are also great for last-mile delivery in urban areas (as British milk delivery companies knew back in the sixties and seventies). Biodiesel has a lot of promise to replace regular diesel once the kinks can be worked out.
However, gasoline and regular diesel are still easier to find, refueling is still faster than charging, and fleet managers considering making a switch need to consider whether they will be making the lives of their drivers more difficult for what can be a minimal gain.