Amid a big rollout at its main plant in Union City, IN, Workhorse Custom Chassis is the latest truck OEM to join the hybrid craze, ramping up to build both gasoline- and diesel-electric versions of its popular W42 walk-in van chassis. The chassis was developed in partnership with Productive Concepts Inc. (PCI) and hybrid propulsion system producer Azure Dynamics Corp.

“We’ve had a lot of interest from our fleet customers in hybrid commercial vehicles due to a confluence of issues,” Dave Olsen, Workhorse’s president, told FleetOwner. “The high cost of fuel today combined with the growing demand for more environmentally clean vehicles means the timing is right for commercial hybrids.”

Olsen noted that the walk-in van market is particularly suited for hybrids due to the stop-and-go nature of the business and chassis adaptability. “Laundry, snack food, bakery, and parcel delivery fleet vehicles can stop anywhere from 100 to 150 times a day—that’s a real fuel economy killer,” he said. “And the size of the walk-in van chassis helps as well. It’s far more challenging to make a hybrid propulsion system practical on an 80,000-lb. over-the-road vehicle versus a 14,000-lb. delivery van.”

Those features are sparking interest in hybrids among commercial fleets, according to Oyster Bay, NY-base consulting firm ABI Research. This is negated partially by the fact that hybrids are much more expensive than their non-hybrid brethren, in many cases costing 50% more.

“Under normal circumstances, fleet buyers avoid risk at almost all cost, but the significant benefits demonstrated in a variety of pilot projects have captured their attention,” said David Alexander, ABI’s senior analyst.

“The potential to reduce emissions from all vehicles is an attractive bonus, but the real drivers for the growth in the market are demonstrable fuel economy improvements and reductions in maintenance costs,” he said. “Along with price reductions from economies of scale due to an increase in orders, hybrid vehicles for certain commercial markets are reaching that tipping point at which they become an economical choice, not merely the environmental one.”

While initial cost, payback periods, and suitability of the technologies to different applications may keep some people away, Alexander said it makes sense for fleet managers to experience the new technology for themselves. This would go a long way in determining if the benefits and applicability of the new equipment meets their particular needs.

“Customers are definitely eager to test hybrids in their operations,” Olsen told FleetOwner. “So while the costs to produce hybrid walk-in vans are significant, we’re not doing it on a profitable basis yet. We’re at that ‘chicken and egg’ stage where we need to invest in the technology with our customers, prove there’s a return on investment for hybrids, and then build up production volumes to drive the cost down.”

Workhorse and PCI plan to produce an initial run of 19 hybrid W42 chassis, with 40 more expected by the end of 2006. With increasing fuel costs and growing environmental concerns, alternative fuel technology has attracted great interest from fleets large and small.

“This is the technology of the future and we’re in on the ground floor,” said Rob Lykins, president of PCI. “Given the growing demand for these kind of vehicles, we and our partners believe this business has strong growth potential.”


“People have heard about hybrid cars, but we believe the commercial vehicle market represents an ideal application for this technology,” said Steven Glaser, Azure’s vp for corporate affairs. “The walk-in van has a very stressful drive cycle: it’s constantly idling while performing a lot of short hauls. With a hybrid, whenever the vehicle stops, the engine shuts off. When you want to go again, the vehicle automatically starts in electric mode. There’s no idling, so you’re saving fuel.

Glaser added that vehicle maintenance costs are also reduced with a hybrid powertrain. “For example, in braking you’re reversing the electric motor and you’re capturing the energy in the brake, so your brakes experience less wear,” he said. “Some hybrid platforms also don’t use starter motors, where there can be a lot of failure and parts replacement costs. With a hybrid, the electric batteries click the engine on.”

It’s combining the ability to save fuel, reduce emissions, and cut maintenance costs that will attract and keep fleet interest in walk-in hybrid trucks for the future, added Olsen. “Fuel savings and reduced emissions are the most important, but then the other benefits kick in—such as reduced brake wear—that really adds up for the fleets,” he said. “That’s why the level of interest in climbing in hybrid technology now.”

To comment on this article, write to Sean Kilcarr at skilcarr@fleetowner.com