Along with 11,000 vehicle and equipment manufacturers, fleet managers and product vendors, I made the annual pilgrimage to the National Truck Equipment Association's (NTEA) Work Truck Show in Indianapolis last week.

The show serves as one of the year’s key mileposts to take stock of the industry. Here are a few trend lines culled from the press conferences, interviews and scuttlebutt. Of course, one editor can’t possibly cover the 500,000 square-foot show floor in its entirety, so forgive my myopic view.  

-    The alt-fuel revolution is alive and well, but the message has changed.

The unexpected drop in fuel prices this year has shaken the alt-fuel (compressed natural gas and propane autogas) markets. When the alt-fuel market took off three years ago, the eager first adopters jumped in. Lower fuel prices today are fostering a wait-and-see approach by that next level of adopters; the ones who don’t have religion. “CNG conversions have leveled off,” said Sam Colalillo, senior product design engineer at Utilimaster.

The number of alt-fuel conversion companies at this year’s show dipped only slightly compared to 2014 and 2013. These companies say the bottom-line math still works for alt-fuels, though the fuel savings message wasn’t front and center this year. “With lower fuel prices, the CNG option might not be as compelling for the individual operator, but for larger fleets it’s also about energy diversity,” said Todd Lenz, director, Ram product planning, during the announcement of Ram’s expansion of its CNG pickup configurations. “But yes, we still see opportunity with CNG.”

Tucker Perkins of PERC, the Propane Education & Research Council, and Ed Hoffman, president of propane provider Blossman Services, played up the health benefits. “Kids exit school buses and walk by tailpipes every day,” Hoffman said. “Do you want propane or diesel coming out of there?”

“We know fuel prices will rebound; we want to be prepared with the right vehicles when it happens,” said Banny Allison of AmeriPride, the textile rental company, at the announcement of AmeriPride’s propane initiative for 20 step vans.

Another coming issue is the new federal ozone standards, which may throw many more jurisdictions “out of attainment,” such as Salt Lake City, Southern Oregon and Puget Sound, Wash. These areas may push CNG and propane adoption to meet the new rules.

-    Hybrid system retrofits for trucks are still waiting for primetime.

The number of vendors in the Green Product Showcase dipped from 29 last year to 20 this year. Lower fuel prices may have been a factor. In the truck hybrid aftermarket, companies such as Crosspoint Kinetics, Lightning Hybrids, XL Hybrids, Odyne Systems and VIA Motors were all back at the show, though Echo Automotive (which never released a product) and bankrupt electric-van maker Boulder Electric were not.

When it comes to hybrids, the math gets tougher for fleets with crude at $50 a barrel. The VIA Motors electrified Silverado will set you back $85,000. A new plug-in hybrid system from Odyne, designed specifically to power fuel tankers while idling on job sites, starts at $50,000, with an estimated payback “in the seven-year range.”

We magazine editors have been waiting for a few years to talk to fleets about real-world truck hybrid usage. “Hybrid truck technology has been up to now a niche industry supported by grants,” said Tim Reeser, president and co-founder of Lightning Hybrids.

Lightning Hybrids is out to change that. The company announced a big order: Mass.-based Kiessling Transit will install 35 hybrid systems in Ford Transit buses this summer. The company’s hydraulic hybrid drive system, for trucks in Classes 3 to 7, runs about $18,000 to $29,000, including installation. Or it can be leased for $380 a month “for day-one net fuel savings,” Reeser says.

Reeser was upfront about making sure your duty cycle works. “For hybrid trucks to be optimally effective, you need to average at least two stops per mile,” he said.

-    Fleets are taking Telematics to 2.0.

The telematics revolution continues apace. While the market has consolidated in recent years, major providers such as Telogis, Verizon Networkfleet and GPS Insight are stronger than ever.

Telogis continues to lead the trend to OEM-enabled systems. Telogis introduced a reboot of Ford Crew Chief as Ford Telematics, in a much wider scope and with next-gen functionality.

One vendor said the term “fleet tracking” is now taboo with customers, because fleet tracking is so telematics 1.0. Though not new functionality, three trends are gaining traction: The first is audible in-cab alerts that warn drivers for risky behaviors. The second is gathering Big Data from not just your fleet but also other fleets using that system, and crunching the numbers to benchmark performance. The third is using that data to “scorecard” drivers and use competition (“gamification”) to increase safety.

The safety aspect of telematics cannot be underestimated. One Telogis customer found out that most accidents happened while backing up, which allowed the company to address the problem in a variety of ways. After a serious accident, another company reviewed that driver’s data leading up to the accident. The data showed that the number of harsh braking and speeding events for that driver were highest in the company — he was literally an accident waiting to happen.

-    The Euro van market is still growing.

The market takeover of the Euro-style vans is complete, as sales in the first quarter outgained the remaining traditional models (the Chevy Transit and GMC Savana). Just when you thought that the product pipeline for the work van market was full, along comes the brand-new Mercedes-Benz Metris — and with it a new van segment.

“We expect the Metris to fill an empty niche of a midsize commercial van,” said Mathias Geisen of Mercedes-Benz during the Metris reveal.

Larger than a Ford Transit Connect but smaller than the Chevy Express, the Metris (at 6 feet, 2 inches) is “garage-able,” yet it can fit a 48-inch pallet between the rear wheels.

Upfitters were already displaying bin packages for the Metris at the show. One upfitter said the Metris will find a gap abandoned with the demise of the Chevy Astro work van. An interesting potential niche for the new van is the growing “fresh direct” delivery services like Amazon as well as Google Express.

At a starting price of $28,950 for the cargo version ($32,500 for passenger van), the Metris will hold the distinction as “the cheapest Mercedes in the U.S.” While Mercedes was quick to point out that “the Metris is not a minivan,” with eight seats and that big Mercedes badge on the grill, one wonders how many units will be sold to the weekday work, weekend warrior crowd.

-    Aluminum is encroaching on steel.

When it comes to racks and boxes for a truck or van, operators increasingly can choose aluminum along with the traditional steel. Some companies, such as Ranger Design and Reading Truck Body, are pushing aluminum for its weight savings and recyclability.

Aluminum detractors will say that you might save 80 lbs. in a rack and bin package by using aluminum, which isn’t much in the grand scheme, and aluminum materials costs are on the rise. Steel proponents say that steel’s tensile strength beats aluminum hands down — you can’t bend aluminum like steel. Besides, steel can be powder coated to prevent rust.

But when it comes to an all-aluminum body, the weight savings is substantial. At close to 50% lighter than steel, you can save as much as 600 lbs. on a typical contractor package. That translates to better fuel economy and greater payload.

-    And now for that product innovation:

“Check this out,” said Ed Hoffman of Blossman Services after the Alliance Auto Gas press conference, pulling out a new pump nozzle to dispense propane autogas. It almost felt like an afterthought. Made by European textile and robotics maker Stäubli, the nozzle (GPV14 LPG) brings propane refueling to the ease of retail gasoline refueling.

Refueling with propane autogas requires threading the nozzle five times to seat it in the vehicle’s fuel fill. Refueling results in emissions leakage, so goggles and gloves are recommended.

Called the “grandma valve” in Europe, the Stäubli nozzle has a “stab-on” fit to the truck’s fuel opening similar to a regular gasoline fill. The quick connection does not require threading the nozzle. There are no drips or leaks and negligible emissions leakage.

Sometimes it’s that small innovation that improves ease of use and drives greater adoption. This feels like one of those cases.  

This new propane auto gas dispenser makes propane refueling as easy as pumping retail gasoline.

This new propane auto gas dispenser makes propane refueling as easy as pumping retail gasoline.

Originally posted on Business Fleet

About the author
Chris Brown

Chris Brown

Associate Publisher

As associate publisher of Automotive Fleet, Auto Rental News, and Fleet Forward, Chris Brown covers all aspects of fleets, transportation, and mobility.

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