Overdrive Extra

Jack Roberts

Work Truck Show wrap-up

| March 10, 2013

Hybrids aren’t working out on big rigs. At the Green Truck Summit that opened the Work Truck Show on Tuesday, several heavy-duty truck manufacturers noted that interest in hybrids has fallen off dramatically over the past couple of years.

It should be noted that in select applications – particularly bucket trucks (and other vehicles that need a source of electrical power to perform work) and refuse – hybrids still make sense. But outside of those specific applications, it appears fleets are finding it harder and harder to make a solid business case for hybrid-drive vehicles. Several factors seem to be at play here: One, the cost of these trucks is so staggeringly high – even with tax incentives, it’s getting harder and harder for cash-strapped fleets to pull the trigger when it’s time to purchase. This would be easier if fleets were seeing faster ROIs on hybrids – but it appears they are not.

Additionally, battery maintenance and replacement is turning out to be more expensive than originally thought. And – for all these reasons – the trucks are proving difficult to move when it’s time to sell and replace them.

At the same time, however, it appears that hybrids are gaining interest and greater adoption in medium-duty applications – particularly in the van market. Here, hybrids seem to make a lot more sense: The systems are more affordable: XL Hybrids showed me a system that can be purchased and installed on an E-Series Ford van for under $10,000. Even better, the inherent urban, stop-and-start nature of the work  many of these vehicles perform is ideally suited to maximize fuel economy, which translates into a much-faster ROI.

It’s pretty clear that hybrids still have a lot of potential in heavy-duty applications. But barring some changes in acquisition and maintenance costs, it look now like we may see them regulated to niche vehicles and applications until those short-comings are addressed.

Solar power is coming. The stage is now set, I think, for another revolution in renewable energy in trucking. At a press conference Wednesday, a company called eNow showed a new solar-strip/energy management system that I think shows fleets an easy way to power APUs, liftgates and other electric applications on commercial vehicles.

Solar power has been mocked for years – and still is in some venues. But when you consider the available surface area of all the truck-trailers running around in this country, and the increasing need for auxiliary electric power those trailers – and the tractors and trucks that pull them – need, this new movement is kind of a new-brainer.

A new generation of tough, durable solar-panel strips can now be linked to smart energy management systems to provide lots of storable electrical power – more than enough, in fact, to keep a reefer cooled down or a driver’s APU kicking out BTUs on a cold winter night.

This push is in its infancy at the moment. But I for one would not be the least bit surprised to look down from an airplane window five or ten years from now and see the highways below glittering like rivers of diamonds from all the solar-panel-covered trailers rolling along below. It’s a good idea and I think it’s going to catch on quickly.

Natural gas gains steam. Finally, I have to say that while natural gas had a huge presence at the show and many new upfits and conversions were announced, I had the feeling that at this point, the industry is largely preaching to the choir.

By that I mean that fleets – particularly medium-duty fleets – are sold on this “new” fuel. They know it works. They know the vehicles are dependable. They know they’ll save money.

The problem now, in my opinion, is infrastructure. OEMs and aftermarket suppliers have answered the call for natural gas vehicles in both medium- and heavy-duty markets. It is now up to the natural gas producers to get fueling stations up and running so that fleets can put this technology to use and we, as a country, can begin to reap those benefits.

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  • Collin

    I have a work van now and I’m not really a fan as much as I once was. I’ve actually been looking at Rocky Ridge Chevy Trucks for sale for the horsepower. I feel like as these trucks and vans come out with better gas mileage and more features that the scooby doo vans will slowly begin to disappear from the trade workers.