Hybrid, medium-duty trucks are here

Photos Courtesy of Calstart, Unless Otherwise Noted.
There were 36 hybrid trucks in convoy during the Hybrid Truck Users Forum convention last year in Indiana.

Given the proliferation of hybrid-electric consumer vehicles in the marketplace, the logical question that landscapers might be asking is: “Where are the fuel-efficient medium-duty trucks that I need to operate more cost-effectively?”

Several truck manufacturers are coming out with hybrid vehicles, which can be fitted with a variety of bodies and equipment. In fact, some are for sale right now at select dealers. They are more expensive than a regular gas or diesel truck, but there are some substantial financial incentives from state and federal governments to motivate companies to go hybrid, and as hybrid trucks become more common, prices will drop.

“It’s growing rapidly, and hopefully will continue to do so,” Richard Parish says of the hybrid truck industry.

Parish is the senior program manager for HTUF (the Hybrid Truck Users Forum), www.calstart.org/programs/htuf/, an offshoot of CALSTART, which is a private nonprofit devoted to developing more efficient transportation technologies for commercial interests. Partnered with the U.S. Army’s National Automotive Center (the armed services are also developing hybrid vehicles) and supported by the Hewlett Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy, HTUF is the leading organization in the nation trying to bring truck manufacturers and end users together in the development of hybrids that can be used for everything from delivery vehicles to buses and semi-trucks. Parish works out of the organization’s Denver, Colo., office. HTUF’s headquarters are in Pasadena, Calif.

Parish says that HTUF has several “working groups” addressing different segments of industry to promote research and development from manufacturers and, ultimately, fleet use. The goal is to introduce substantial numbers of fuel-efficient medium-duty trucks to industries that utilize them, particularly in urban areas where huge fuel savings can be realized through the use of hybrid-electric technology.

“Hybrids do best in a stop-and-go situation, or if you go to a job and operate equipment and the engine is idling,” Parish says. Either one of those scenarios could apply to landscape crews. A lot of development work has been done on delivery vehicles, for example, because of the large potential for fuel efficiency.

Parish says that although you may not be using a hybrid truck now to haul sod, transport heavy equipment or dump green waste, you soon could be. The technology is similar to that used in hybrid passenger cars, but developed separately for trucks. The hybrid-electric drivetrain is the most common, wherein an electric motor acts in parallel or in series with an internal combustion engine. These are not scaled-up versions of cars, but completely new designs for heavy-duty transportation.

In one hybrid version, the truck’s starter and flywheel are replaced with an electric motor that sits on the chassis in front of the automatic transmission. Another version is placed in the driveshaft behind the transmission, and another is attached to the truck differential. Nothing is uniform between the different truck manufacturers, Parish says, though almost all are integrated with diesel, rather than gas, engines.

Photo Courtesy of Peterbilt.  
Medium-size hybrid trucks, such as this model by Peterbilt, are becoming available for landscape use across the U.S. There is growing interest in hybrid trucks, which can be modified for use in landscaping and other industries and are for sale from several manufacturers.

The result is a medium-duty truck that uses a battery-powered electric motor to start the vehicle rolling and for use with slow speeds, while the diesel engine kicks in for longer hauls at higher speeds. The recharging of the batteries is done through the brake system. Several heavy batteries are required, but these are more easily stored under the truck body than they could be in a small car trunk.

There are several hybrid-electric, medium-duty trucks now available for sale, though production is just starting and availability, thus far, is through select dealerships. Parish lists International, Freightliner, Peterbilt and Kenworth as manufacturers of hybrids with trucks on the market in the Class 4 to 6 range. One of the most active is Azure Dynamics, which develops hybrid technology and pairs it with different manufacturer’s bodies. An example is the product of medium-duty trucks with the Ford 450 body and an Azure Dynamics drive. Another active technology provider is Enova Systems.

“What we’re hoping to do is motivate some additional hybrid products in those classes,” Parish says, particularly by the American big three carmakers: GM, Ford and Chrysler. With the economy lagging and fuel prices low right now, manufacturers are slow to push hybrid development, he says.

The benefits of hybrid-electric transportation are obvious. Fuel savings from the different manufacturers and different truck classes range from 20 to 50 percent, Parish says, depending on how you use the vehicle. Another benefit is the availability of electric power for field operations on a battery-powered vehicle. He says that 2 to 5 kilowatts of AC power can be available through an inverter on the truck. Custom truck bodies for the power trains can be ordered through body suppliers, just as with normal trucks.

Hydraulic power systems for job usage are also now available, with the hydraulic pump being driven by the battery system. This enables equipment such as booms to be operated just as they would be on normal trucks. For the future, hydraulic hybrid drive systems are being developed that would replace the truck’s electric motor with a pressure-driven hydraulic wheel drive.

The cost differential (of a hybrid-electric vehicle versus a regular gas or diesel) is about $20,000 to $40,000, Parish says. That is due to the higher cost of hybrid technology and extra batteries. That is a lot of money, but fuel savings goes a long way to offset it, and, in fact, may more than compensate for that over the life of the vehicle. In addition, he projects that maintenance cost savings could be substantial in a hybrid truck because of reduced wear and tear on the diesel engine and the brakes.

“If you do a life-cost analysis, with the growth of fuel costs as well as lower maintenance costs, it turns out that you do save dollars over a 10-year life cycle,” Parish emphasizes.

There are also government incentives that can really reduce the cost of a hybrid vehicle. Already, there are Internal Revenue Service tax savings, with commercial hybrid vehicles listed for special deductions. Parish says that in addition, incentives are in the pipeline that would provide a straight rebate, some of this money coming from the U.S. economic recovery stimulus package, but administered through individual states. On top of that, California will be offering its own voucher/rebate system for these vehicles, and other states could follow. The end savings would be thousands of dollars—some of it in up-front costs—with an additional benefit of a reduction in diesel emissions.

In addition to the developments in hybrid technologies, work is being done in other power systems such as all-electric and hydrogen fuel cells for use in trucks. There is also a new movement to provide hybrid-electric power to construction equipment, such as backhoes and trenchers. All of this technology lags behind the hybrid truck movement.

One irony is that pickup trucks, which are the backbone of many industries, are way behind in the use of hybrid-electric drives. They are available in SUVs of all sorts, but not in pickups. That is being remedied, with a lot of development done in particular by GM and Toyota, but Parish says that it hasn’t been shown so far that a lot of extra fuel savings can be effected through hybrid-electric drives in pickups. However, the Silverado line of pickups from Chevrolet is offering a hybrid drive this year.

In the meantime, hybrid-electric, medium-duty trucks are becoming more available from several manufacturers. “They’re very slick systems,” Parish says of the trucks, which have proven, just as hybrid cars, to be reliable transportation.

For additional information on the laws regarding alternative fuel vehicles and the tax credits and incentives available, visit the U.S. Department of Energy Web site at www.afdc.energy.gov/afdc/vehicles/hybrid_electric_laws.html.

To see hybrid trucks from various manufacturers and to find dealers, visit the following Web sites:

Azure Dynamics: www.azuredynamics.com
Chevrolet Silverado: www.chevrolet.com/silveradohybrid
Freightliner: www.freightlinertrucks.com
International: www.internationaltrucks.com
Kenworth: www.kenworth.com
Peterbilt: www.peterbilt.com

Don Dale resides in Altadena, Calif., and is a frequent contributor to Turf. He has covered the green industry for more than 10 years.