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Transitions Ahead

Posted: August 1, 2014 by Rolf Lockwood

There’s an astonishing amount of activity going on in the quest to limit the impact of rising diesel prices on commercial trucking of all sorts, some of it aimed at replacing fossil fuels entirely, some at limiting the need.

Hybrid diesel/electric vehicles, for instance, dominated the recent Work Truck Show and National Truck Equipment Association conference in Atlanta, as they did in 2007. But there were also all-electric commercial trucks on display, including the Canadian Quicksider from Unicell and a new British vehicle from Modec. Hydraulic hybrid efforts continue as well, and the Bosch Rexroth folks were there to talk about them.

A key part of the gathering again was the all-day Hybrid Truck & Alternative Fuels Summit, except this year the audience had probably doubled. Interest is that high.

The fuels angle was new this time out, and perhaps the most interesting address of the day was by Dr. Richard Nelson, a professor at Kansas State University and a member of the U.S. National Biodiesel Board. Nelson endeared himself to his audience by acknowledging that things aren’t perfect in this burgeoning industry. While he’s clearly a biodiesel booster, he says the matter of fuel quality is a major roadblock.

“It’s the number-one issue facing this industry,” he says, adding that moving to a B20 blend (20-percent biofuel mixed with 80-percent distillate, up from the more common B5 mix) “will not be a factor if fuel quality cannot be met on a consistent basis.”

There is indeed a standard, called ASTM D 6751-07b, that must be met to satisfy the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Internal Revenue Service definition of a true biodiesel fuel. It’s feedstock-neutral, meaning it applies only to the end result, no matter whether the fuel is sourced from soybean oil or animal fats or wood pulp or whatever else. Yet another stricter standard is due soon.

In a 2006 survey done by random sampling of 39 U.S. biodiesel blenders, Nelson noted, 59 percent of those samples failed to meet the ASTM spec. Some 30 percent of them failed specifically on glycerine content, too much of which produces very poor cold-weather performance. The standard, not incidentally, was revised not long ago to meet those cold-weather concerns that caused a ruckus amongst biodiesel users in Minnesota two years ago.

Things were looking up in another survey last year, in which the biodiesel tested was on spec 89.6 percent of the time overall. But there’s a story behind that number when you break the samples down according to the size of the company doing the ‘refining’ — with large producers, B100 biodiesel was on spec 94 percent of the time, but that fell to 68 percent with mid-sized producers, and a scary 28 percent with small companies.

The lesson is clear: if you’re buying biodiesel, and that’s a challenge in Canada, Nelson says you must know your supplier, know that the ASTM standard is being applied, and know the feedstock being used. That’s because performance varies greatly from one to the other. Problems like stability in summer, filter plugging, degradation of engine parts, and cold-weather failures can be due to feedstock issues. Nelson says you should go so far as to demand a certificate guaranteeing the quality of the fuel you’re buying.

BUILDING A HYBRID MARKET: Alternative powered vehicles
must boost productivity while reducing costs.


Written off by some as no more than a niche player, the diesel/electric hybrid truck seems to be attracting more and more interest. A niche player it surely is, but some of those niches are not exactly tiny.

Pretty much all the existing medium-duty hybrids out there so far are utility trucks with booms. A logical first choice, because such machines can take advantage of battery power to raise a bucket without using the noisy, thirsty diesel to run a PTO. But the opportunities go further.

Freightliner used the Work Truck Show to introduce its hybrid M2e drop-frame beverage truck, for example, and Eaton took the opportunity to announce the biggest single order to date of its hybrid electric drivetrain: Coca Cola has signed for 120 medium-duty trucks featuring Eaton’s ubiquitous product, which was launched into full-scale production last summer. The Coke order is being split between Kenworth T370 and International DuraStar trucks.

The total beverage market represents about 3,600 mid-range trucks and 2,000 tractors a year in the U.S., incidentally, making it substantial if not enormous. Equivalent Canadian figures are not available.

The new Freightliner has Cummins ISB diesel power and of course the Eaton electric drive unit. As well as the example on display in Atlanta, six others have been built. Dave Bryant, sales manager for Business Class vocational sales at Freightliner, says serious efforts are underway to ensure that dealers understand hybrids, salesmen and technicians alike. He says they’re approaching the market in a very deliberate way.

“We have a plan, we’re working the plan,” he says.

International is also pursuing the beverage industry, according to Steve Guillaume, medium-duty general manager at the Chicago outfit. Not just with a truck but a tractor, too, and before the year is through they’ll have vehicles built, he promised. That’s evidence, he says, that the hybrid idea is growing beyond the narrow realm of the utility bucket truck.

Guillaume says International has built 100 hybrid diesel/electric trucks to date, almost all in customer hands, with a goal of 1,000 sales in 2008. First to go into line production, as of last fall, the company is now building 50 DuraStar hybrids per month.

The commercialization process is thus moving forward, but the upcharge required to buy a hybrid medium-duty truck is still typically in the $40,000-to-45,000 range, he says. Plus about $15,000 if you want the electric PTO.

“By 2010, I’d say those costs would be half that,” he adds.

SILENT BUT EFFECTIVE: The Quicksider curbside van made by
Unicell for Purolator Courier is a monocoque design with
an all-electric drive system by ArvinMeritor.


Costs are a bit harder to pin down with all-electric commercial vehicles, but they’re clearly coming. They’re more advanced commercially in Europe, but we do have one of our own — Purolator Courier’s unique Quicksider developed by body-builder Unicell in partnership with ArvinMeritor, the first-ever zero-emissions curbside delivery truck built in Canada.

There’s another pair of electric trucks, both from the U.K., that we’ll likely see here sooner or later — the Smith Newton cab-and-chassis-plus-box medium-duty truck and the all-electric class 2-4 Modec urban delivery vehicle on display in Atlanta.

The Quicksider, on the other hand, has been on the streets of Toronto in the Purolator fleet since last fall, and more are coming. It’s a stepvan with monocoque design and one-piece fiberglass body, conceived and executed by Toronto-based Unicell in concert with Purolator.

Its electric ‘drivetrain’ was ArvinMeritor’s contribution to the project. The truck should produce 20 percent fewer emissions than the already-clean diesel/electric hybrids — 49 of them — currently in Purolator’s fleet. Those hybrids are otherwise ordinary package vans, and the Quicksider also beats them in cargo capacity, maintenance, and especially ergonomics. And that’s the rest of the point.

“Conserving fuel and reducing greenhouse gas emissions are important to us, and we’ve changed our fleet operating practices to reflect that,” says Serge Viola, national fleet manager at Purolator.  “At the end of the day, though, you’re paying for these vehicles with real money. You need to justify that cost.”

Simply put, says Viola, alternative-powered vehicles need to boost productivity and reduce operating costs. The Quicksider promises to do just that.

It’s fully electric, a direct-drive vehicle that captures energy normally wasted as heat during braking applications and then stores it in four batteries. Individual drive modules deliver power to each rear wheel. Each module includes a traditional wheel-end package with disc brakes; an electric motor that drives the wheel and provides regenerative braking; and an electronically controlled pneumatic suspension.

The 230-hp vehicle has a top speed of 110 km/h. Designed for urban routes with 80 to 150 stops, it has a range of roughly 40 miles on a single charge. Purolator envisions using the Quicksider in low-mileage, high-density service, and the diesel/electric hybrids on extended routes.

Despite a higher acquisition price (production vehicles are expected to cost twice that of standard gas-powered vans), the company projects a two- to three-year payback through greater productivity. The key is the Quicksider’s electric powertrain: the motors, regenerative braking system, battery pack, and electronic controls.

“Because the motors are at each wheel, there is no driveline, transmission, or rear-axle differential,” says Dennis Kramer, hybrid program manager for ArvinMeritor.

This gives the Quicksider advantages over a conventional stepvan, like a totally flat load floor just 14 in. off the ground, which drivers will love. As well, the pneumatic suspensions have 9 in. of travel so the vehicle can ‘kneel’ to curb level, further reducing physical demands on the driver. And the simple drive system combined with regenerative braking is expected to reduce maintenance costs by at least 33 percent.

And what about ‘fuel’ costs? While the Quicksider’s energy cost per mile should improve with future battery designs, the current cost associated with leasing and charging the batteries offers no advantage over gasoline or diesel.

“You still have to pay for the battery and for the electricity to charge it at night,” Viola says.

However, rising fuel prices and increasingly stringent emissions legislation will undoubtedly make the transition to electric vehicles increasingly attractive in many urban applications.

“Further returns will come from improvements in technology — high-voltage, high-output motors; improved battery chemistries; and solid-state controls,” Kramer says. “After years of focusing on what is feasible, we’re now looking at what is affordable.”


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