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Interest in natural gas-powered trucks continues to grow

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- North American truck sales may have slowed in the latter stages of 2012, but orders for natural gas trucks are bucking the trend.

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — North American truck sales may have slowed in the latter stages of 2012, but orders for natural gas trucks are bucking the trend.

Freightliner has 520 natural gas trucks on order already this year, while it sold 720 units last year and 2,000 natural gas-powered trucks over the last four years. Robert Carrick, sales manager, natural gas with Freightliner Trucks, told attendees at the Green Truck Summit today that: “as a company, Daimler sees natural gas growing, not only in North America but globally.”

There was a heightened buzz about natural gas at this year’s Green Truck Summit, which precedes the NTEA Work Truck Show. OEM representatives who took part in a panel discussion called ‘OEM perspectives on the future of clean technologies,’ all agreed that interest in hybrid-electric vehicles is waning, due largely to concerns over resale value and uncertainties about how to dispose of used battery packs in an environmentally-friendly manner.

Carrick said customers are showing “waning interest” in hybrids, which has been reflected in sales.

“We haven’t sold nearly what we did three or four years ago in the last two years,” Carrick said.

David Majors, vice-president of product development with International Truck, agreed, adding: “the maintenance cost of the hybrid system is more than diesel or natural gas, and with natural gas, you don’t have to worry about resale. As people look at the longer-term life and resale value and the second life of the vehicle, natural gas makes more sense to them.”

Asked if natural gas is a slam dunk for all manner of fleets, Carrick cautioned that it’s not a fit for everyone.

“There’s a reason that we’ve used diesel fuel for 100 years,” he said. “It’s very efficient and it’s readily available.”

Truckers wanting to use natural gas need to first ensure they have a reliable fueling station capable of a fill rate of 8-10 gallons per minute. They should also research natural gas prices in their region before jumping in. Carrick said he’s seen natural gas selling for anywhere from 79 cents per gallon to $3 per gallon.

“If you’re buying your fuel at $3 per gallon, then why do it?” he asked. “Clean diesel will do a better job for you in the long run. If you are paying $1.50-$2 per gallon, you can save a lot of money and get a payback in one-and-a-half to three years. You have to analyze it very carefully.”

A natural gas fuelling network is quickly taking form, but it’s still in its infancy and restraining the growth of the natural gas truck market. Carrick said half the US truck fleet could switch to natural gas “tomorrow” if the fuelling network was more established.

International’s Majors said fleets are generally seeking a payback of two years before committing to the higher up-front costs of purchasing natural gas-powered trucks. The price of natural gas engines is coming down as their acceptance in the market increases, however Carrick said the tanks are still costly. What’s needed is more competition and increased innovation in tank design, panelists agreed.

Representatives on the panel also discussed the nuances of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and compressed natural gas (CNG). In the US, demand has been greater for CNG.

“We’re customer-focused and the customer demand we’ve seen over the last four years is for CNG,” Carrick said. “A lot of that has been driven by the infrastructure, or lack of it, that LNG has. That’s going to get better. We have 550 LNG products running in the ports, and it’s a great fit in the ports where they have four fuelling stations within a 50-mile radius.”
Interest in LNG tractors is increasing, Carrick noted, as the highly anticipated Cummins ISX 12 G nears production.

Fleets that spec’ LNG trucks should be forewarned that the fuel will evaporate, or “boil off,” over time when parked. For that reason, it’s important to keep the trucks working, Carrick warned.

“The venting issue is confusing to a lot of people,” he explained. “If you’re driving the truck and fuelling every day and putting cold fuel back in the tank, you’re never going to vent an ounce. If you park the truck for four or five days, the fuel will vent into the atmosphere and in four days to a week later, you’re out of fuel. For vocational products, you have to watch if you do park the truck for a week or two weeks, you do have a chance of running out of fuel.”

Frank Schneck, division engineering manager with Peterbilt, said fleets can minimize the boil-off effect by filling the trucks completely before parking.

“It may seem like reverse logic, but when you park the truck if you fill it full of fuel, you have a large mass of cold keeping it cold longer and it will go one or two weeks without starting to vent,” he explained. “If it’s three-quarters empty, it will start venting within days.”

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