DETROIT, Mich. — Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ (FCA) private transport fleet has become one of the largest in North America to convert to compressed natural gas (CNG). FCA Transport LLC (formerly Chrysler Group Transport LLC) finished converting its 179 Peterbilt-leased tractors in early December, a harbinger likely for other sizable transport fleets including those operating cross-border routes.
The fleet is based at the FCA Transport terminal on Detroit’s northeast side, and hauls everything from stampings to engines to transmissions between the Motor City and various other company plants in the Midwest and Ontario.
FCA fuels its trucks at a specially built CNG station, which it claims to be the largest privately-owned fast-fill CNG fuelling station in the US.
FCA also has a truck fleet based in Windsor and company officials say they are looking at the performance of the Detroit fleet before possibly extending the CNG conversion to this side of the border.
FCA has long eyed alternative fuels for a variety of reasons – cost control, environmental, and in this case an investment in what has been a beleaguered City of Detroit’s economic comeback.
It spent two years and $40 million on the conversion, including switching to 179 CNG-powered Class 8 tractors, as well as spending $5 million on a fast-fill and time-fill refuelling centre and $1.8 million to upgrade its 36,000 sq.-ft. maintenance facility.
FCA Transport had been spending some $8 million on diesel fuel annually to cover 16 million miles. “So we were looking for a solution that could offer a couple of different advantages,” FCA Transport head Martin DiFiore said.
One was a cost reduction, the other environmental sustainability. “So natural gas was a great option for us,” he said.
The company expects to reduce costs 35% and reduce CO2 emissions by more than 16,000 tonnes.
Even with declining fuel prices FCA expects major savings.
DiFiore said that while diesel is currently priced relatively low, “What people may not realize is that natural gas is also at historical lows. So let’s say diesel at a US price per gallon was $2.75. At that price point my payback will be just under a year.”
White Plains, N.Y.-based TruStar Energy built what it’s calling the largest private fast-fill station in North America. The station’s pumps dispense CNG at a rate almost the same as for diesel – almost 40 gas gallon equivalent (GGE) per minute. TruStar erected the facility in less than six months and will own and maintain it. Virtually the entire fleet can be filled at the fast-fill pumps while there are fewer time-fill pumps for overnight fuelling and providing slightly higher tank capacity.
“We use that as an option to fill some of perhaps our longer run tractors but 99% of the tractors that are being filled are utilizing the fast-fill portion of the station at this terminal,” DiFiore said.
The tractors themselves have four CNG fuel tanks stacked vertically behind the cab.
The range is about 640 miles or almost 1,030 kms, DiFiore said. The company dispatches trucks to as far away as Brampton, Ont., 219 miles or about 352 kms each way. “Our longest run round-trip is about 540 miles,” to Kokomo, Ind., he said. FCA Transport, which dates from 1925, has 405 drivers and 74 different start times a day.
“And we run 24/7 so we’re constantly (going) around the clock so we have a constant need to fuel,” DiFiore said.
DiFiore said it took more than 6,000 hours of training for the drivers and skilled trades alone. There was also time invested for management training and there were employee town hall meetings.
Bruce Winchester, executive director of the Canadian Natural Gas Vehicle Alliance, thinks FCA’s decision could spur more Canadian fleets to convert.
“You can’t discount how important those cross-border connections are,” he said. “It says to everybody that’s in their supply chains that they are using that as a way to move goods.”
While there have been a few Canadian fleet conversions, Winchester said he thinks the Canadian trucking industry is “on the cusp of a pretty big push in Ontario around natural gas over-the-road trucking. We spend a lot of time doing outreach activities…there has been a lot of interest in it.”
In the US, FCA joins other major fleets that have converted to CNG including Procter & Gamble, Anheuser-Busch, Frito-Lay and Unilever.
Matthew Godlweski, president of Natural Gas Vehicles for America, said while CNG has major advantages there also has to be an obvious business case.
“You have to make the investment in the vehicles,” he said. “Chrysler doesn’t own those vehicles, they lease them, so that helps on that end. But, again, price and performance have to come first, right? You’ve got to have vehicles that work for the duty cycle that they’re interested in using them in and the numbers have to pencil out.”