Hybrids: the winning alternative option?
Recent studies by several research groups indicate that hybrid trucks — especially medium-duty models — may provide an easier path to reducing emissions and petroleum consumption when compared to alternative fuels such as natural gas and propane. “The major reason for wider hybrid [truck] adoption to start with is they don’t create any ‘infrastructure’ pressure,” says Sandeep Kar, global program manager of commercial vehicle research at Frost & Sullivan in Toronto, Canada. “They don’t require a new refueling or re-charging infrastructure, as will natural gas or all-electric vehicles. From an environmental standpoint, with battery power already onboard, they can reduce or eliminate engine idle time as well as overall fuel consumption, leading to lower emissions.”
Several key trends are going to intersect in the near future to boost sales of hybrid trucks, Frost & Sullivan says in its recent study, “Strategic Analysis of the North American and European Hybrid Truck, Bus and Van Markets.” They include the growth of “mega-cities” — resulting in more congested urban roadways — energy security and the need to reduce emissions most cost-effectively. Taken together, those issues will combine to drive wider adoption of predominantly medium-duty (Class 4-6) hybrid models in North America and Europe, Kar says.
Boulder, Colo.-based Pike Research backs up that outlook, projecting that global sales of hybrid trucks will increase from 9,000 units in 2010 to more than 100,000 vehicles annually by 2015. “Payback periods on hybrid drivetrains are improving for medium and heavy-duty truck classes, particularly as oil prices continue to rise,” says Dave Hurst, a Pike senior analyst. “And, as fleets managers increasingly focus on efficiency and regulatory compliance, combined with a variety of new models being introduced by truck manufacturers, this will lead to substantial growth in this market over the next five years.”
According to Pike’s most recent study, “Hybrid Trucks & Buses,” five types of hybrid systems are being successfully implemented on medium- and heavy-duty vehicles today: hybrid electric, plug-in hybrid electric, battery electric, mild electric power take-off hybrids, and hydraulic hybrids. Among those options, Hurst says hybrid electric trucks will be the largest segment between now and 2015.
Frost & Sullivan is more bullish concerning hybrid truck sales growth, predicting that collectively North America and Europe will see a 76.4 percent compound annual growth rate in hybrid truck demand, reaching 222,000 total units by 2016. That volume, however, is a drop in the bucket compared to the total commercial vehicle production the firm projects will exist in 2016 — some 3.5 million to 4 million units between North America and Europe — highlighting the challenges hybrid technology still faces in winning acceptance from fleets, Kar says.
“Several challenges remain for hybrids, especially upfront and life cycle cost benefits,” Kar says. “Much of it relies on overcoming the initial price premium for hybrid trucks and payback in fuel savings, which can take five years or more. Price right now is the biggest challenge, and it needs to be brought down.”
Yet, rising fuel prices and tightening regulations, coupled with declining prices brought about by economies of scale in hybrid truck manufacturing, could accelerate hybrid truck adoption rates, especially in select niches, he says. “Hydraulic hybrids, for example, have a particular ‘sweet spot’ in the refuse truck market,” Kar says. “The upfront costs are lower compared to electric hybrids, and the fuel savings can generate payback in as little as three years.”
- Read the main story, “Being green, saving green,” to learn about municipal fleets that are challenged to use alternative fuels to reduce pollution while holding the line on expenses.