The Future of Hybrid Service Vehicles

While fuel prices yo-yo and cause consternation among contractors, the march toward ‘green’ work trucks creeps along at a slow pace

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When manufacturers decide to ramp up production of hybrid vacuum trucks, you just might see Tim Kettler, president of Action Septic Service Inc. in Warsaw, Ohio, at the front of the line to become an alternative-power pioneer.

“I absolutely would consider buying one,” Kettler says. “Personally, I’d be willing to pay more for a hybrid vehicle. It’s a quality-of-life issue … It’s what we need to do to protect the environment. Sure, it’s an expensive investment, but what better way to demonstrate our commitment as an industry to not just clean-water issues, but to the larger issue of environmental stewardship?”

On the other hand, Kettler concedes that the significantly higher price of hybrids compared to conventional vehicles would deter many smaller contractors. “It would require a real financial commitment,” he says. “It definitely would be a challenge. You’re going to need a larger motivation than just saving a few gallons of gasoline right now.”

In a nutshell, Kettler’s comments sum up the fundamental issues many pumpers will face in the coming years as they ponder the merits of going hybrid. The decision will require consideration of a host of factors aside from just the higher cost or being eco-friendly, including whether or not their service area is urban or rural, where up-and-down fuel prices will settle, regional air quality and customer demand for “green” service providers.

A few industries in the United States and abroad already are dabbling in medium- and heavy-duty hybrid trucks (among the more common are dump, garbage, utility and delivery trucks). These hybrids combine diesel engines with electric motors and can provide up to 50 percent better fuel economy than conventional vehicles.

That’s no small benefit in times like these when diesel prices hit record highs. But the high prices seem to come in waves, then wane somewhat, leaving most contractors content to stay on the sidelines, refusing to enter the hybrid game. Or businesses might decide to start out small by buying hybrid pickup trucks and service vans to see how they work out, without as extensive a capital investment.

 

NUMBERS TELL A STORY

Sales of hybrid trucks remain sparse. A study compiled by the Center on Globalization Governance & Competitiveness, a group affiliated with Duke University, projected production of commercial hybrid trucks at 4,900 units in 2010, most for corporations that own large fleets.

A report from marketing research firm Frost & Sullivan estimates that 220,000 hybrid trucks will be sold in Europe and North America by 2016. That’s a 76 percent compound annual growth rate – but still negligible compared to the 4 million trucks the firm expects to be produced in total that year.

High prices are the biggest obstacle to hybrids. Truck producers can’t decrease prices much until volume dramatically increases. Not even federal tax credits of up to $12,000 for some hybrid truck models were enough to offset the price premium.

Rich Piellisch, editor of Fleets & Fuels magazine, sums up the quandary by pointing out that a utility company or contractor might pay about $260,000 for a hybrid aerial bucket truck, compared to about $200,000 for a conventional model.

“That’s a big premium, so to make up the price differential, you’d better be driving a lot of miles or doing a lot of idling,” he says, noting that a hybrid’s batteries can power truck accessories, such as aerial lifts, instead of an idling diesel engine. “Or you’d better be banking on diesel fuel prices going up to $5 a gallon.”

While fuel prices have spiked this spring and summer, Piellisch says companies are getting used to the swings and that has taken away the knee-jerk reaction of wanting to buy into hybrid technology.

“These vehicles are usually bought for long-term usage. Duty lives of 10 or 12 years are not uncommon,’’ he says. “Is hybrid technology more attractive now than when you have $2.50 diesel? Yes. The expectation seems to be that prices will go up, but we had that expectation before and saw them go down.’’

 

REDUCING IDLING TIME

The most common electric hybrid truck technology relies on an electric motor and a diesel-powered engine. Either power source or both can provide power at a given time. On many models, controls monitor driving conditions and automatically choose the ideal power mode, which is shown on a dashboard display.

These hybrids capture energy expended during braking and store it in lithium ion batteries, which can then either help with acceleration or operate truck accessories, such as cranes and lifts. As a result, hybrids that rely on so-called regenerative braking are best suited for urban, stop-and-go driving conditions, not high-speed, long-distance rural driving, experts say.

In Kenworth hybrid commercial trucks, the stored electrical energy can power truck accessories for up to 40 minutes with the engine turned off, which saves fuel and reduces engine wear-and-tear. When the batteries run out, the engine turns on automatically and recharges them with just five minutes of idling, says Judy McTigue, marketing manager for medium-duty trucks at Kenworth Truck Co.

“This could be a very good application for vacuum trucks,” McTigue says. “If you’re in pumping mode, and all you need is power from the PTO, it’s a great application for those vehicles.”

In such cases, the hybrid’s gas mileage is almost incidental compared to the value of dramatically reduced idling, Piellisch says, which underscores how complicated it is to determine the economic feasibility of going hybrid.

“Nothing is ever clear cut,” he notes. “In this case, you save a lot of money, even though you’re not driving a lot of miles … powering the truck’s equipment (with electricity) is more important than moving the truck itself. It’s always a question of what’s appropriate for the truck’s duty cycle.”

Tony Vasquez, streets and drainage manager for Bexar County, which surrounds San Antonio, Texas, agrees.

“You have to fit the right vehicle to the right application,” he notes. “We’re currently working with a vendor to produce a hybrid street sweeper. They travel at three to five miles per hour, which is a perfect application for a hybrid vehicle. Since we’re in an urban area, there’s a lot of stop-and-go driving, and that’s where the payoff is for hybrids.”

“The maximum benefit comes at lower speeds,” McTigue adds. “When I talk to someone about buying a hybrid truck, the first thing I ask is what a typical day of driving is like for them.”

 

PAYBACK STILL UNCERTAIN

Hybrids also become more economically justifiable in areas with air quality issues. A good example is Bexar County, where county officials – facing designation as an air-quality non-attainment area – approved an energy policy in 2007 aimed at conserving energy and promoting environmental responsibility.

That move led to the purchase of three 2009 Kenworth T370 diesel-electric hybrid dump trucks. The county uses the single-axle trucks, featuring 6- to 8-cubic-yard beds, to deliver material such as asphalt and dirt. They also can pull a trailer that holds small equipment, Vasquez says.

At the time, rising fuel prices also made the hybrid trucks more attractive. “The hybrids cost about $128,000 each, which is 25 percent more than conventional trucks,” he says. “We expect about an eight- to 10-year payback period, largely based on fuel prices.’’ When fuel prices dropped off $4 highs two years ago, the payback didn’t look so good. But now that diesel is hovering around the $4 mark, the hybrid truck purchases are looking a little wiser.

“In reality, if you make a decision based just on a cost basis, it might not make as much sense,” Vasquez says, referring to the unknown of long-term fuel prices. “But if you take into account air emissions and the county’s environmental goals, then it comes into play.”

The county’s older conventional dump trucks achieved about six mpg, compared to an average of nine mpg for the three hybrids. As a bonus, the hybrid trucks’ crew cabs hold up to five people, as opposed to only two. “Now we can transport more people to jobsites with fewer vehicles, which also saves fuel,” Vasquez says.

In areas with air-emissions restrictions, contractors with hybrids can obtain work that competitors with conventional vehicles can’t. In addition, some government jobs may even require low-emission vehicles. “If you work in a non-attainment area, hybrids can open up work for your fleet, which gives you an edge in obtaining business,” McTigue says. “In addition, hybrids can provide an advantage in areas with noise-abatement laws. They’re so quiet that at 10 p.m., nobody even realizes your truck is there.”

 

GOING GREEN?

Some contractors find value in marketing their companies as “green” entities that care about environmental stewardship. For them, large and visible hybrid trucks tangibly project that image.

“It’s very difficult to put a value on a ‘green’ image, but some of our customers develop marketing programs around it," McTigue says. “They put hybrid diesel decals on the doors of their trucks … they’re very proud of the trucks. We’ve seen everything from full vinyl wraps around box trucks to banners on bumpers. There’s a lot of creative ‘logoing’ going on.”

Nonetheless, without clear-cut financial or marketing advantages, it appears many contractors – such as John Eldredge, general manager of Eldredge Equipment Services, a large waste-hauling firm in West Chester, Pa. – will remain conflicted, standing on the hybrid sidelines. Or they may opt to experiment with smaller investments in hybrid pickup trucks and service vans.

“We’re always interested in something that improves the environment,” Eldredge says. “On one hand, we have a responsibility to improve the environment. But on the other hand, there’s the financial feasibility. It’s a fine line.”

But in the long run, industry observers like Piellisch believe it’s a question of when, not if, hybrids become more common. Fuel price hikes like we’ve seen this spring and summer are part of a pattern of laddering, Piellisch explains, where prices rise, then settle back down, but where they settle is still higher than the price before the spikes.

 

BECOMING FAMILIAR

Beyond the fuel price swings, Piellisch sees truck manufacturers keying on paybacks not based on receiving government subsidies to prove hybrid technology makes sense.

More and more manufacturers are promoting that the technology will pay for itself without government incentives,’’ he says. “It’s changed in the last six months, and they want to make their case without having to fall back on the government.’’

Adds McTigue: “People are more comfortable with the technology … they see it’s not crazy, weirdo, science fiction stuff. Hybrids are here to stay.”



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