Kirkland and Mt. Vernon, WA. The North American market for heavy-duty, natural gas-powered (NG) commercial vehicles will rise steadily over the next few years, reaching about 18,500 units by 2016, according to Andy Douglas, national sales manager for specialty vehicles at Kenworth Truck Company. Douglas shared the forecast with members of the trucking press at a recent event showcasing the company’s alternative power trucks.

“We expect that about two percent of the total heavy-duty vehicle build in North America will be natural gas,” he noted. That means about 5,100 heavy-duty, natural gas- powered trucks will probably be sold this year; about 9,500 in 2013; and about 12,500 in 2014.  These are small numbers relatively speaking, but the growth in demand is still significant year over year.  

A market is also developing for used natural gas trucks, Douglas told Fleet Owner. “Not a week goes by that I don’t get a call about used natural gas trucks,” he said. “It makes sense. Buying a used natural gas truck gives companies a way to try out the technology at a lower price point than buying new.  I wish I had more used natural gas trucks [to sell].”

The event for the press followed Kenworth’s second Natural Gas Summit for customers, an educational session that was so popular the company had to turn people away because of a shortage of hotel rooms in the area. “There was a huge interest in the summit,” Douglas said. Part of the reason is the current spread between the cost of natural gas and the cost of diesel. “The price of natural gas over the past three years has been consistently lower than diesel, in some cases by as much as $2.00 per diesel gallon equivalent,” he said.

Progress is also being made at last on developing a natural gas fueling infrastructure and that is “a real game changer,” according to Douglas. “We have to be prepared for the growth in the natural gas market,” he noted. “There are lots of ‘moving parts’ with natural gas.”

To help customers deal with those “moving parts,” Douglas has helped to prepare a guide for fleets ready to seriously explore the purchase of natural gas vehicles, including asking these critical questions:

  1. What type of natural gas (compressed natural gas or CNG) and/or liquid natural gas (LNG) is available where you need it?
  2. What is your operating range?
  3. How easy/possible is it to fuel your trucks at the natural gas stations that are convenient for you?

“Dealer service is key,” Douglas added. “We will not build a natural gas truck without a great service plan in place. That is what needs to be done.” The federal government has guidelines (not requirements) in place for facilities that service natural gas vehicles. These include:  systems for methane detection, ventilation, and lighting and heating that presents no open flame.

Douglas is also in favor of moving away from incentives for the purchase of alternative fuel vehicles. “We are trying to move away from incentives to making a strong business case for [these vehicles,]” he noted.

The popularity of natural gas does not mean that hybrids and other alternative power options are no longer viable, according to Douglas. Far from it.  “There continues to be an interest in hybrids,” he said,” although it has currently declined a bit.”

The business case for hybrids versus natural gas trucks is different, he told Fleet Owner.  With natural gas, the value proposition centers on the cost differential at the pump between natural gas and diesel. For diesel-electric hybrids, it is about using less fuel overall. Right now, the business case may be a little better for natural gas, he observed, because the payback period may be somewhat shorter.

Kenworth also shared other news, including the fact that market share for the company hit 14.1% in 2011 and is already at 15.7% year-to-date. Preston Feight, Kenworth assistant general manager, sales and marketing, also gave editors a look at the behind-the-scenes efforts to bring the new Kenworth T680 to market. “Employees had a phenomenal commitment to the project,” he noted, “and we kept customers involved from start to finish.”

Feight ticked off a number of driver-friendly features that were a result of this careful collaboration—some originating from customer input and others from Kenworth insights and inspirations, including the rotating driver seat and work table, the cab door lock accessible from the bunk and the numerous power outlets and abundant storage space. “We also paid a lot of attention to ease of manufacturing,” he noted. “[We wanted to design a great truck that was easy to build well every time.]”

At the PACCAR Technical Center in Mt. Vernon, WA, north of the company’s headquarters, editors also had the opportunity to drive or ride along in eight different trucks, including the natural gas version of the T660 with the new ISX12 G engine from Cummins Westport and the T440 liquid natural gas truck.