Hybrid-electric trucks are here and more are coming, yet the education of fleet owners on the ins and outs of these high-tech wonders is just beginning.

Fleet user groups, light-, medium- and heavy-duty OEMs, and specialized system and component suppliers alike are committed to bringing a variety of hybrid electric-drive vehicle types to trucking. But to make the most of this environmentally friendly and fuel-saving technology, fleets have a steep learning curve to negotiate as technological developments keep rolling out.

That's the message behind the “Hybrid Truck & Alternative Fuels Summit” held at NTEA's Work Truck Show last month.

Chris Amos, commissioner of equipment services for the City of St. Louis, detailed how much fleets must learn, consider and analyze before making a hybrid decision as he gave a presentation produced by the National Assn. of Fleet Administrators. He pointed out that fleets must realize how much advanced technology is involved in hybrids-running from battery packs and generators to regenerative braking systems to electric motor drive/assist systems to automatic start/shutoff capabilities.

Amos said future developments to keep an eye on include Clean Diesel and CNG, which likely will replace gasoline in some models. He also said use of biofuel and E85 (85% ethanol) “can accentuate the [fuel-saving] advantage of hybrids. In addition, he related that “two-mode hybrid” drivetrains-which integrate the transmission for greater efficiency-are in the works.

But despite their great promise, hybrids are not a slam-dunk decision for fleets. Amos discussed the pros and cons of today's hybrid technology vs. traditional truck power.

Hybrid pros:

  • Non-monetary incentives, such as use of HOV lanes and designated parking;

  • Fuel savings, although not as high as indicated by EPA;

  • Lessened environmental impact (reduced CO2);

  • High resale value, but hard to predict at this juncture;

  • Temporary tax incentives.

Hybrid cons:

  • Higher incremental cost of $3,000 to $5,000 per vehicle (LD);
  • Only available now as part of “high option” packages (LD);
  • Limited availability;
  • Insurance costs higher;
  • Maintenance & repair costs uncertain;
  • Potential safety issues due to high-voltage batteries.

Amos added that, as with all commercial vehicles, hybrids must be subjected to a thorough lifecycle analysis before a given fleet can be assured the choice it is making makes financial sense for its specific trucking operation.