One of the greatest delights and biggest challenges of being an independent business researcher is the mystery of what topic or industry will become your next project. Specializing in the advanced manufacturing sector has given me the opportunity to work with clients on a variety of fascinating assignments. Not long ago, the topic I was asked to research concerned diesel engine retrofits. My client was an independent marketing strategist hired by an independent qualitative market researcher to work on a complex research assignment for an international retrofit diesel catalyst manufacturer. That sequence of who was working for who turned out to have some interesting implications.
When I received the project’s background information, my first instinct was to run screaming, a la Butterfly McQueen’s character Prissy in the movie Gone With the Wind, “I don’t know nothin’ ’bout diesel engine retrofits!” The manufacturer was a leader in the on-road market for retrofits, but the off-road market was emerging as a new priority, driven by California Environmental Protection Agency Air Resources Board’s (CARB) anticipated passage of a rule to reduce diesel particulate matter (PM) and oxides of nitrogen (NO x) emissions from existing off-road heavy-duty diesel vehicles. This mouthful of words required several readings before I could fully digest them.
The anticipated CARB rule was controversial. People expected construction trade groups to file lawsuits on the basis that it created an unfair burden on users. However, the client expected that the rule would be upheld, resulting in a significant opportunity to retrofit vehicles with its product. The research I was conducting would be used by the marketing strategist and the market researcher to develop insights, opportunities, and recommendations to help the client determine if the off-road market was viable.
My proposal contained the following elements:
- Identifying how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Regions and Clean Diesel Collaboratives are addressing the anticipated off-road diesel rule, including the implementation plan and the drivers for each region
- Learning what the client’s competitors were doing in response to the proposed rule
- Identifying the top 10 potential customers within the state of California for a retrofitted engine; the top consultants working with off-road construction companies to address the new rule; and the districts most concerned with the rule, along with their respective influential political leaders
- Reviewing other influential states and issues specific to them including Texas, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.
- Creating a Research Road map
This was a daunting undertaking. I live in Pennsylvania, so I was not familiar with the details of California’s political composition. Neither was I an expert on diesel engine retrofit products, the off-road construction vehicle market, or the EPA, but I was about to learn.
Although I was tempted to dig in and start researching right away, the first thing I did was create a research road map. The road map gave me the step-by-step directions for tackling the assignment and a checklist to ensure I did not double-back on sources. The first step was to review the materials provided by the client. It is essential to learn what the client already knows about a topic so that you are not searching for information she already has. It also provides a common knowledgebase so you are talking the client’s language.
The second step on the road map was identifying the key stakeholders if the rule passed. Who would support the passage and who would be against it? The list included government agencies; nonprofit organizations; the client’s 13 self-reported competitors; EPA Regional Collaboratives on air quality in California; other key states identified by the client; potential customers if the rule passed; and air quality consultants. After working through that laundry list of topics, the third step was to personally contact any subject matter experts identified in the secondary research to help fill in any gaps.
The last piece of the road map was identifying the po tential research sources including subscription-based database Factiva (dowjones.com/products/product-factiva) and trade journal and newspaper aggregator HighBeam (high beam.com); supplier sourcing site ThomasNet.com; trade associations and publications; and competitors’ websites.
Digesting Alphabet Soup
After reviewing the materials supplied by the client, I was swimming in an alphabet soup of acronyms including PM (diesel particulate matter), NO x (nitrogen oxides), HC (hydrocarbons), CO (carbon monoxide), CO 2 (carbon dioxide), GHG (other greenhouse gases), and BC (black carbon). To help myself and my two colleagues, I kept a running list of acronyms to use as a reference as I worked through the research. Ultimately, I compiled more than 60 acronyms and added them as an appendix to the finished report.
Early on while reading the supplied background docu ments, I discovered a “You say tomato, I say tomahto” situation. The client used the phrases “off-road” and “non-road” interchangeably. Other variations included “offroad” and “nonroad.” This tidbit influenced how I created search strings and how I referred to the phrase throughout the final report; I opted to consistently use the term “off-road.” Whether a web search engine or a subscription database’s search platform synonymizes the hyphen and non-hyphen versions of a word or phrase is unique to that source. Some experimentation on the part of the researcher is required.
Navigating the Regulatory Landscape
The project was essentially multiple mini-research projects that I had to tackle separately, then bundle together into a cohesive report.
My first line of attack was finding out more about the regulatory standards in place for emissions of off-road vehicles, starting at the federal level and working down to the state level. Using Highbeam and general web searching, I uncovered articles and websites that helped frame the issue.
The EPA’s website proved to be an excellent resource. The Overview of the Clean Air Act and Air Pollution (epa.gov/clean-air-act-overview) webpage provides an easily digestible overview of the act and an easy-to-navigate menu for a deeper dive.
DieselNet (dieselnet.com), an online information service on diesel exhaust emissions, emission control technologies, emission standards, regulations, measurement, health, and environmental effects, provides a synopsis of emission standards around the globe. For the United States, it has data on new engine and vehicle emissions, stationary engines, on-board diagnostics, fuel economy/greenhouse gases, and in-use engine and vehicle emissions. DieselNet’s webpage on nonroad (its term) diesel engines (dieselnet.com//standards/us/nonroad.php) was an important piece to help me understand the regulatory environment. In addition, DieselNet has a “For Beginners” primer that covers tailpipe emission standards.
Climate Solutions’ website (climatesolutions.org) gives in sights on how California has been given special status by the EPA to set stricter standards on pollutants because of the state’s distinct topography and climate and its high number of automobiles. If the EPA grants California a waiver, other states may then follow. The waiver gives California formal permission to deviate from federal standards.
As part of its Clean Diesel campaign, the EPA created seven collaboratives (epa.gov/cleandiesel/epa-regions-clean-diesel-collaboratives) across the country. These are divided into subregions. The collaboratives have established similar goals to work in a coordinated manner with public and private partners to significantly reduce diesel emissions and improve public health. They keep an eye on each other’s activities and encourage all stakeholders, legislators, subcommittees, and budget writers to follow examples that have occurred in other states.
Blue Skyways Collaborative (blueskyways.org)
Mid-Atlantic Diesel Collaborative (dieselmidatlantic.org)
Midwest Clean Diesel Initiative (epa.gov/cleandiesel/midwest-clean-diesel-initiative)
Northeast Diesel Collaborative (northeastdiesel.org)
Rocky Mountain Clean Diesel Collaborative (epa.gov/region8/about-rmcdc)
Southeast Diesel Collaborative (southeastdiesel.org)
West Coast Collaborative (westcoastcollaborative.org)
These websites helped increase my understanding of what is happening around the country and gave me good leads for further research.