Electric Trucks, Hybrid Diesel Cars, Alt Fuel Vehicles

By Tom Bartley. The Advanced Clean Transportation (ACT) EXPO, May 4-6, 2011, at the Long Beach Convention Center had 42 on display and 25 ride-n-drive alternative fuel vehicles running on natural gas, propane, biofuels, hydrogen, and electricity. This is the largest conference of its type in the US this year, taking over from the dropped AFVI/Clean Cities annual conferences.

The conference included tours of the Port of Long Beach, Republic Services in the City of Gardena, L.A. Unified School District, L.A. municipal fueling, and Ryder’s Natural Gas Truck Rental. Each tour highlighted a major fleet fueling facility for natural gas (CNG and LNG) or propane. There’s nothing like an increase in fuel prices to get people thinking about alternatives. And there’s nothing like public awareness to get manufacturers’ thinking.

Keynote speaker, Dr. Kathryn Clay, Executive Director of the Clean American Transportation  Alliance, set the theme for the breakout sessions. We need all the possible solutions because there is no golden spike or silver bullet that will do it all. Vehicles and fuel have to be:

  • Available
    • Refueling infrastructure
    • Locations to match the vehicles that need it
  • Affordable
    • Sustainable vehicles, fuel, and operations with cost models that do not hinder business activity and personal travel
    • Elimination of imports that threaten economic, energy, and national security
  • Clean
    • Management of Fuel production hazards
    • Continuing air quality improvement to prevent premature deaths (currently estimated at 5600 per year in the Los Angeles basin)
    • Minimize green house gases that may be affecting climate change

Alternative fuels technologies have been pushing hard to deliver all these characteristics and have pressured traditional petroleum fuels to do likewise. Hybrid-electric cars and buses are now over 10 years old. Propane and natural gas engines have significantly improved. Hydrogen is starting anew.

Cleaner Hybrid Diesel Cars and Trucks

Diesel now offers more clean bangs. After being introduced in Paris in 1897, diesel vehicles have over 50% of the market in Europe. Led by GM, diesel cars and light-trucks had 10% of the US market in the 80’s, but they a reputation for poor reliability, high maintenance, and dirty fuel. I hated the smell of the exhaust and, as a mechanic; I hated the smell of the fuel and the dirty oily engines. Today is different. Diesel engines are robust at all levels; the exhaust is clean; engine and fuel seals have moved forward a few generations.

In the US, the sale of diesel passenger cars and light-duty trucks is increasing. Why? First, diesel is widely available and it’s efficient. Because of it’s volumetric and weight energy density, diesel fuel is the best we have for transportation. In his presentation during a ACT Friday breakout session, Alex Freitag, Director of Bosch Diesel Systems Engineering for North America, said that, for comparable vehicles and engines, diesel now holds a 30% fuel economy advantage over gasoline. 10% of that comes from the amount of energy per gallon. On one chart Alex compared a gasoline hybrid at 50 mpg with a diesel hybrid at 72 mpg. (It must be a Prius on steroids.) Because of the higher fuel economy diesel had lower CO2 emissions per mile. Furthermore, Alex indicated that there are additional improvements that will widen the gap. For over 100 years the Bosch Group has been a leader in supplying technology and components to the automotive industry.

The diesel efficiency improvements are possible because the exhaust cleanup is left to the converters, filters and traps. All this comes at the cost of a higher purchase price, but results in a lower life cycle cost of ownership. The breakeven point for direct costs of operations can be measured in months rather than decades.

So, diesel is available, clean, and affordable. What about imports? Over 50% of the US transportation diesel is imported, but that leaves a little under 50% that is domestic and biodiesel already offers some price advantages while continuing to advance in availability. Using less diesel fuel per mile is another way to reduce those imports.

Natural Gas Vehicles

The EXPO had 27 natural gas vehicles in the hall and 6 more in the ride-n-drive. Through the development of horizontal drilling and fracking the US is now considered to have the largest reserves in the world. There is enough to replace imported transportation oil and still have enough for heating and power generation.

Fleet owners realize that the price of natural gas is now detached from oil and looks like it will be stable for a long time into the future. A 52 cent per gallon rebate (cash) sweetens the pot for both the non-profit and for-profit organizations. The biggest variable cost is the electrical energy cost of compression. But if the compressor engine burned CNG, hmmmmmmmmmm.

One notable CNG display vehicle on the EXPO floor was the world’s first CNG emergency reponse vehicle by HME. This a new approach to reduce the cost of fire protection.

What’s missing? Infrastructure – As a fleet operator, you need to be concerned about range and refueling. We could use more public stations across wider areas. This also means more regional and interstate pipelines. The Wednesday tours showed that the thinking of the big central fleets is already on board, but the smaller operators have a hard time covering the cost of a station.

The Honda Civic GX CNG passenger car, one of the cleanest in America, offers excellent fuel cost for a slight premium purchase price. PHILL offers the affordable home compressor/refueler option. The public could use some more choices in competition with the GX to excite the market.


15 million vehicles around the world burn propane for fuel, not just for the tailgate bar-b-ques. The US has the world’s largest storage and the good news is that 60% of it comes from natural gas, thus, offering price stability detached from gasoline and with the 52 cent per gallon IRS sweetener. The liquid injector technology was a significant clean improvement for the engine and storage tanks. There were 6 vehicles on the floor and 6 more in the ride-n-drive. Propane provides 25% less energy content per liquid gallon than gasoline at a 35% less price.

Electric Trucks and Buses

One Proterra bus, one heavy-duty Balqon truck, one Smith delivery truck, and two light-duty (FCCC and Ford Transit Connect) vans were displayed on the EXPO floor.  The bus, the delivery truck, and an ALTe pickup were at the ride-n-drive. Notable is the Proterra battery-electric transit bus in daily service for Foothill Transit in Pomona, California. The bus probably has the largest battery pack in mobile operation. Even at 28,000 lbs curb weight, it still manages on less than 2 kWh per mile and a 10 minute charge time. It’s an efficient operation, quiet, but not really sustainable in low quantities at over $1million per bus and probably more for the 1.2 MW charge station.  Unknown is what happens when they get hit for $1.00/kWh demand charges in the middle of the summer. They may need a rather large battery pack at the charge station.

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles

There was a Honda FCX Clarity hydrogen sedan on the EXPO floor; another Clarity, Chevy Equinox, and Kia Borrego SUV at the ride-n-drive. Noticeably absent was one of the 100 Toyota prototypes. These vehicles are being pushed by the California Fuel Cell Partnership (CAFCP) along with the hydrogen highway concept.  The concept is now one of local clustering connected by one or two stations in between. It’s actually working better than E85 stations in California.

No E85 Ethanol Presence

E85 didn’t have a presence at this EXPO. Outside of Iowa the biggest advantage is replacing imported oil with domestic ethanol. The energy balance of production leaves a lot to be desired, but we are replacing 10% of the gasoline with the E10 we buy at the pump today. Actually, it’s a bit less because of the lower energy content of ethanol.

The EXPO had over 1300 attendees, 300 more than expected as high petroleum prices have fleet managers eager to use cleaner and less expensive alternatives. The show producers Gladstein, Neandross & Associates (gna) did a great job hosting the event.

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About Author:

Tom Bartley is an expert about vehicles, drive systems, and energy storage. Tom Bartley has a BSEE and MSEE from Stanford University. He is a life member of the IEEE and a member of SAE. He is a director on the board of the San Diego Clean Fuel Coalition and is working with Transpower of the development of heavy-duty electric drive systems.

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