In just a few short years, trucks powered by alternative fuels have gone from a rare sight on the road to a growing trend that has seen serious investment by big fleets. Today’s biggest alternative fuel contender is natural gas. While many OEs offer liquid natural gas (LNG) and compressed natural gas (CNG), CNG has the biggest opportunity to become a well-supported diesel alternative.
“The decision by trucking companies to adopt natural gas has also been greatly influenced by major shippers, who are becoming increasingly ‘green-minded’ and encouraging them to convert to gas. In some cases, a trucking company can find itself ineligible to haul for certain shippers unless it replaces its diesel-fueled trucks with natural gas-powered ones,” explains Andy Douglas, Kenworth Truck Co.’s national sales manager for specialty markets. “For many fleets, switching a portion of their diesel-powered trucks up for replacement at the end of their trade cycles with natural gas-powered trucks just makes good business sense. The more miles you run, the more fuel you burn. When the mileage is higher, the ROI benefits of natural gas are greater and you can recover the additional cost that much faster.”
Adoption all comes down to the bottom line. Greg Treinen, segment manager, natural gas for Freightliner Trucks, says that fleets are moving to natural gas primarily because of the fuel cost advantages. The cost difference between CNG and diesel fuel can be in the $1.50 and $2 per diesel gallon equivalent (DGE).
“The initial cost of a natural gas-fueled vehicle can be substantial; that incremental cost is paid for by the fuel cost savings of natural gas fuel vs. diesel,” he relates. “The best applications to realize a quick payback—two to three years—are those running 80,000 or more miles per year or burning 10,000 to 15,000 or more gallons of fuel per truck per year, generally speaking.”
At a recent ride and drive event, Kenworth’s Douglas shared an example of one fleet’s CNG savings. Running the 12-liter Cummins-Westport natural gas engine 160,000 annual miles, the fleet saved approximately $37,000 a year in fuel cost savings per truck. Even with the 8 to 12% in fuel economy loss and the nominal increased maintenance cost for a natural gas vehicle hovering around 2 cents per mile, that’s still a net savings of more than $33,000.
“We hear success stories from customers that show availability will be less and less of a concern in the years ahead,” says Charles Cook, Peterbilt Motors Co. marketing manager. “There are several great examples we have that once a customer commits to operating natural gas vehicles, they are very resourceful to maximize its viability and profitability. Sometimes it means researching and strategizing routes to take full advantage of the infrastructure that is in place—and sometimes this leads to new business for them as they work to develop new customers to optimize those routes. Other fleets install their own fueling stations and if they have multiple terminals, they can optimize routes to take advantage of their own fueling network. They can even turn this into a revenue stream by selling natural gas to other fleets.”
FedEx Fleet Focus
FedEx is currently testing both LNG- and CNG-powered tractors in its linehaul and city operations around the Dallas area, using public fueling stations for its natural gas vehicles. John Smith, FedExvice president of Safety, Fleet Maintenance and Facility Services, explained that on-site fueling for natural gas vehicles is something that may make sense for the company in the future if it continues to invest in natural gas vehicles.
“Our goal is to put the right vehicle on the right route. It is all a matter of evaluating the needs of your fleet—range, capacity, etc.—and matching the right vehicle to the mission to meet the FedEx commitment to customers and communities,” Smith says.
An alternative alternative
Within the medium-duty segment, diesel-electric hybrids are a viable option for pickup and delivery, refrigeration vans, stake truck, landscape and lawn-care trucks, tow truck, moving and storage, light beverage trucks, tele-com trucks and beyond. Hino Trucks offers a Class 5 diesel-electric cab-over with GVW ratings of 17,950 or 19,500 lbs. This is Hino’s sixth generation parallel hybrid system that utilizes 60% of the Toyota hybrid system componentry. The hybrid comes in a standard cab, model 195h and a crew-cab, model 195h-DC. When paired in the right application that is a combination of city and highway driving with an average speed of 18 to 24 MPH, Hino reports that customers have achieved up to 30% better fuel economy. In addition, it provides a 20% to 30% CO2 offset to traditional diesel engines that are certified to the latest emissions standards. Additionally, Hino’s hybrid runs on up to B20 biodiesel.
“In my opinion, there are two driving forces behind the growing demand for alternative fuel adoption: 1) Operational savings—individual and fleet operators are looking for ways to save money—and 2) environmental concerns,” says Glenn Ellis, Hino Trucks vice president of marketing, dealer operations and product planning. “Most fleets are looking for a three- to five-year payback at the latest.”