Alternatives abound

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In my wanderings amidst the 2012 National Truck Equipment Assn.(NTEA) show this week, I’ve been struck by just how many alternative propulsion systems – from natural gas, propane, biofuels, and electricity to hydraulic hybrid technology – are being highlighted to the vocational segment of the commercial vehicle market these days.

Four dollar a gallon diesel and gasoline, of course, might have something to do with it, too.

Yet what most of the folks championing various alternative fuel and hybrid vehicle strategies keep trying to point out to the NTEA’s members gathered in Indianapolis this week is that they don’t require a huge amount of change to fleet operations. Vehicle acquisition costs are higher, certainly, but driving and refueling operations aren’t significantly affected.

For example, Darren Engle, director of marketing for Blue Star Gas, showed me that refueling a propane-powered truck really isn’t a whole lot different than refueling its diesel or gasoline-fired brethren.

Then there are those alternative vehicles that really don’t require any changes whatsoever, except for (of course) writing a far bigger check for them on the front end.

Take Via Motors’new “range extending” electrified package for pickups and vans. The van version of this technology – which is similar to what powers Chevrolet’s Volt sedan – costs a bundle up front ($79,000 a pop right now) but boosts the fuel economy of a typical work van from eight to 12 miles per gallon out to around 100 mpg.

Telecommunications giant Verizon is jumping on the Via Motors bandwagon, as it believes the company can not only significantly cut its fuel use but also vehicle maintenance costs as well since these electrified vans can travel up to 40 miles on battery power alone before the gasoline engine needs to kick on.

The real key to sustaining the interest in alternative fuels and hybrid technology, of course, is the price of gasoline and diesel fuel – which are directly linked to the price of oil. If petroleum costs stay high, then a whole host of alterative propulsion systems become extremely cost effective. But if oil and fuel costs crash again, alternative power options will again get placed on the “maybe” shelf by fleets. 

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