I grew up in the 1950s on a steady diet of Dick Tracy detective comics. It was all about his fantastic two-way wrist radio, which would later also serve as a television. Today, Dick Tracy-like wrist TVs are available at your local Apple store.
It might take the same amount of time for natural gas to become an effective substitute for surface transport diesel consumption. Consider that the largest U.S. commercial users of diesel fuel for marine purposes consumed 2.1 billion gals. in 2011, and the railroads reportedly consumed 3.1 billion gals. of diesel. But these numbers are small compared to the 36 billion gals. of diesel used by the U.S. trucking industry in 2011.
Arguably there are relatively few large players in the U.S. marine and rail sector. About seven U.S. railroads handle about 90 percent of the revenue freight-ton miles. Similarly, the largest towing operators handle the majority of the barge cargo. These large companies would be ideal candidates for initial natural gas market tests.
For natural gas to become a good diesel substitute, it will have to penetrate the interstate highway system to make it readily available to truck lines. Most trucking is highly concentrated in large dry van operators with thousands of tractors and trailers. The trucks travel primarily on heavily used major north-south and east-west interstates with fairly steady loaded movements in bilateral or triangular movements or operate from urban terminals.
Traditionally, the truck highway sector is largely labor intensive. Capital investments for new equipment are not big when compared to rail and barge. There is also an active used market for trucks, which is the staple of new entrants, usually owner-operators.
Natural gas penetration in the rail and barge sectors seems relatively easy when you look at the two sectors’ well-defined operations, industrial terminals and ability to store gas en route in tows and trains. But this seems to be a much harder proposition for trucking, except in urban areas.
For a major shift from diesel to natural gas to occur, then the interstate highway sector will have to be penetrated. If only rail and barge shift to natural gas, then the effect on diesel consumption will be minimal.