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In October 2012, I wrote in Hooked Up about the foresight of Cummins in developing a natural gas engine market as far back as 2002, when natural gas wasn’t yet at the forefront of anyone’s mind. Most engine OEMs at that time were...

In October 2012, I wrote in Hooked Up about the foresight of Cummins in developing a natural gas engine market as far back as 2002, when natural gas wasn’t yet at the forefront of anyone’s mind. Most engine OEMs at that time were engrossed in meeting the EPA02 emissions standards and weren’t even thinking about natural gas. Yet there was Cummins, forging a longstanding alliance with Vancouver-based Westport Innovations to develop a natural gas engine market when few, if any, fleets were openly asking for it. “For Cummins to hook up with Westport at that tumultuous time showed a great deal of foresight, and they are reaping the rewards today,” I wrote then, and that’s as true today as it was then.

So it’s with that in mind that I wonder in this space today, why Cummins has put on hold its 15L natural gas engine? The official response, courtesy Christy Nycz House, on-highway marketing communications director, is that it’s because of a lack of demand at this point in time.

The official response: “As a result of market timing uncertainty, Cummins has paused the development of the Cummins ISX15 G natural gas engine. While we believe natural gas power will continue to grow in the North American truck market, the timing of the adoption of natural gas in long haul fleets preferring 15 litre engines is uncertain. We believe the adoption of natural gas in long haul fleets will be paced by a variety of factors beyond the engine and include fuel tank technology and public fuelling infrastructure.Cummins remains committed to the natural gas market.  Heavy-duty fleets desiring natural gas power currently have the option of the Cummins Westport ISX12 G, which is available in a wide range of heavy-duty truck OEMs.We will re-evaluate the market demand and readiness for the ISX15 G later in 2014.

Yes, it’s true that most natural gas trucking applications south of the border would be well-served by the ISX12 G, and even the ISL9 G has a strong following there. But having done so much to develop the natural gas engine market, I’m still left puzzled by this latest development. After all, Cummins isn’t averse to taking risk – smart risk. Look, they developed a 5.0L diesel engine without a single customer, confident enough that a market would develop for this very product, and they’ll likely be proven right. A market for a 15L LNG engine already exists – albeit a small one – and it seems poised to grow, in Canada at least, with an expanding LNG fuelling network taking shape in Ontario, Quebec and Alberta.

One well-connected source told me he believes this pause in development is as much to do with technological challenges in developing a 15L spark-ignited engine as it is about lack of demand.

“Upon Cummins announcement in 2012 (that it was developing a 15L spark-ignited natural gas engine) it was our opinion the 15L spark-ignited engine would never come to reality due to its high level of inefficiency vs. the Westport HPDI 15L technology and I am sure that’s just what Cummins realized as they started down their path of research and development,” he told me.

One thing I’ve learned over the years covering trucking is that engineers feel they’re capable of achieving anything, and they usually are. But sometimes along the long road to development, it becomes clear that the trade-offs are too significant to pursue further and that a change of course is required. So there could be an element of truth to my source’s theory and maybe developing the (world’s first?) 15L spark-ignited natural gas engine was more technologically daunting than was originally anticipated. If so, there’s no shame in that.

Cummins is a company that knows when to hold them and also when to fold them. It’s nothing more than a footnote by now, but remember Cummins initially announced it would meet the EPA10 emissions standards using EGR alone, much like Navistar. Unlike Navistar, it also had the presence of mind to reverse strategies early on, when it became apparent that the technological challenges – and necessary compromises – in continuing down this path were greater than first envisioned. Again, Cummins takes smart risks, not stupid risks, and if they found in developing a 15L spark-ignited natural gas engine that the performance trade-offs were going to be significant, they may well have decided to put the project on hold while they consider their next move.

Maybe it’s a combination of lackluster demand coupled with technological challenges. Or maybe it’s exactly as Cummins says, and I should stop speculating and just accept the fact that it’s not in the best interest of Cummins or its shareholders to spend millions of dollars developing a product that as of now, is only being waited on by a handful of Canadian fleets.

For now, we’ll have to wait and see what Cummins does next. Will it resume development of its 15L spark-ignited natural gas engine and introduce it sometime post-2015? Will it alter its technological path and bring to market a 15L natural gas engine that uses existing HPDI technology? Or will it abandon this project altogether, leaving a void in the market for someone else to fill (and if so, who, if anyone, will step up to fill it)?

I don’t have answers at this time, only questions. I hope to have more answers in March, when Cummins makes its top executives available to the truck press during its annual Mid-America press conference. Cummins executives, I’ve come to appreciate, are straight shooters and they take any and all questions head-on at this event. It’s something I look forward to every year and this year even more than ever.

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