Power Struggle

After spending millions on research and development, heavy-duty engine makers will begin selling engines this October that meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s reduced nitrogen-oxide level of 2.0 grams per horsepower-hour. If anybody’s buying, that is. Cummins, Detroit Diesel, Mack and Volvo have all said they will meet EPA’s stepped-up goals using a technology called cooled exhaust gas recirculation. In fact, as we went to press, Cummins and Mack had applied for EPA certification of their new engines.

Caterpillar, on the other hand, has bucked conventional wisdom, saying flat out that not only will it not use cooled EGR, but that it has no plans to meet the October deadline. Instead, it plans to have EPA-compliant engines available in 2003 using a technology called ACERT, which it believes is a better long-term solution.

All this alphabet soup has truck buyers understandably worried. One of the largest, Schneider National, has voiced concerns about the new engines’ reliability and durability, since an accelerated schedule left engine makers with little time to test models in real-world conditions. Cost is another issue. Estimates are the engines will run between $3,000 and $5,000 more than existing engines and may increase your fuel costs by as much as 5 percent.

As truck buyers, this leaves you with four choices: buy new before Oct. 1, buy a late-model used rig, extend the trade cycle on your current truck, or bite the bullet and buy a truck with one of the new engines. To further complicate matters, there are also rumblings of a possible delay of the October deadline, a move financially shaky truck makers – fearful that truckers will either prebuy or not buy at all – would welcome. But most industry observers say a delay is unlikely, at best.

If you’re a Cat fan, the situation becomes still more complex. Because it won’t meet the October deadline, Cat is studying its options, including simply not selling engines until ACERT is ready. Another possibility is that it might pay nonconformance penalties that start at nearly $5,000 per engine in order to keep selling its current technology engines after October.

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For many of you, the issue may be moot, at least in the short term. In an informal eTrucker.com poll, 34 percent of respondents say they have no plans to buy in 2002 and 43 percent say it depends on the situation.

But whether or not you’re in the market for a truck, it’s in your best interest to stay on top of this situation as it unfolds. Evaluate your business needs, plan ahead, and watch to see if anyone – other than the EPA – comes out a winner.