OEM panel discusses challenges, future for natural gas

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Freightliner partnered with Cummins Westport to offer the ISX12 G heavy-duty natural gas engine in the Cascadia 113 Day Cab.Freightliner partnered with Cummins Westport to offer the ISX12 G heavy-duty natural gas engine in the Cascadia 113 Day Cab.

The success of natural gas in heavy-duty trucking likely hinges on how involved OEs are willing to be in the education, training and relationship building of fleets and fueling partners.

Executives from Cummins Westport, Daimler Trucks North America, Volvo Trucks North America, Kenworth, Navistar and Peterbilt spoke before a packed conference room Tuesday in a roundtable discussion on the future of natural gas in heavy-duty trucking.

The consensus was that OEs will have to do far more than simply push a quality truck to the end of the assembly line.

Jim Arthurs, President, Cummins Westport, says his company has worked to educate all its employees about the product suite, including cost and benefit analysis of natural gas versus diesel.

“We’ve worked to get distributors up to speed,” he says, “and we’ve had a two-day camp with account executives.”

Concerns over infrastructure are, by proxy, also a problem for the OEs – you can’t sell a truck that can’t easily get fuel.

“With public fueling stations, most are looking for a cornerstone customer,” Andy Douglas, National Sales Manager, Kenworth Truck Company, says. “They’re saying, ‘Give me somebody to get this thing started with.’”

“It’s our job as the OE to bring them in and partner them up.”

Infrastructure will grow as more and larger fleets add LNG trucks, either through a cost/benefit analysis or mounting pressure from major shippers.

“Shippers see (LNG) is cheaper and have never liked diesel fuel surcharges,” Arthurs says.

Brian Daniels, Product Manager, Powertrain, Daimler Trucks North America, says Freightliner has funded six LNG units that it has passed along to fleets around the country in an effort to educate the fleets about LNG, and also help Daimler see the practical units in action.

Bringing in multiple partners will also go a long way in cross training staff, says Navistar’s Director of Alternative Fuels and Product Marketing, Nadine Haupt.

“We’re all basically using the same engines and are partners with Cummins Westport,” she says.

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The relationship with Cummins Westport, Haupt says, has to find its way to the dealer level and, eventually, the service bay.

“There’s a collaborative effort on service and support in working with dealers, even if they’ve never sold (an LNG truck), because that truck may never go back to the dealership where it was purchased.”

Once that training is implemented, Arthurs says the remaining hurdles in servicing the engines are small.

“It’s not a big step to service the engine,” he says.

Another challenge for natural gas is simply keeping pace with the fuel it is trying to replace.

“Natural gas has to close the gap in fuel efficiency and payback,” Arthus says.

“Our customers are looking for a two year payback,” Daniels adds.

Ed Saxman, Product Manager for Alternative Fuels for Volvo Trucks North America, added a little perspective as LNG begins to emerge as “the little fuel that could.”

“Diesel will remain the mainstay for many years to come,” Saxman says.

Even with some hills still to climb, Douglas says LNG has paid its dues and is beginning to reap the benefits.

“It’s a mature market,” he says, estimating that between 3 and 5 percent of all Kenworth’s new builds this year will be natural gas units. “Customers who tested (LNG) trucks several years ago are now coming back in for their third, fourth trucks.”

Bill Kahn, Manager of Advanced Concepts for Peterbilt, agreed.

“It’s all about people taking a look at their operations and spec’ing the right engines for their needs,” he says, noting Peterbilt has logged approximately 2,000 orders for natural gas units this year. “And 30 percent of those are the (Cummins Westport 12 Liter).”

Jason Cannon has written about trucking and transportation for more than a decade and serves as Chief Editor of Commercial Carrier Journal. A Class A CDL holder, Jason is a graduate of the Porsche Sport Driving School, an honorary Duckmaster at The Peabody in Memphis, Tennessee, and a purple belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu. Reach him at [email protected]