The accelerated pace of change in the automotive industry is breathtaking, and the once staid arena of work trucks is not immune.
Driven by technological advances, new manufacturing materials, manufacturing flexibility and alternative powertrain options, product cycles are shortening while truck buyers have more choice than ever before.
Held in Indianapolis every March by the National Truck Equipment Association (NTEA), the Work Truck Show is ground zero to assess these changes. Here are some of the major trend lines collected from walking the show floor, going to seminars and talking to exhibitors and attendees.
The 4-Cylinder (Diesel) Truck Arrives
And you thought that engine downsizing stopped with the migration from eight cylinders to six? Think again. With advances in engine and frame design, work truck users now have options to get the job done with a 4-cylinder powerplant.
General Motors’ redesigned 2015 Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon midsize pickups will offer the segment’s only diesel engine — a 2.8L I-4 Duramax turbodiesel — for the 2016 model year. This diesel, already offered in global markets, generates 193 horsepower and 183 lbs.-ft. of torque, tows up to 3,500 lbs. and carries up to 1,450 lbs. in payload.
GM expects 40% of Colorado/Canyon sales to be 4-cylinder engines, according to Anita Burke, chief engineer for midsize trucks at GM. Compact pickups such as the Toyota Tacoma and Nissan Frontier have traditionally offered 4-cylinder engines. Yet with a box-delete and crew cab options, GM expects plenty of work use out of its new trucks.
In van land, the 2014 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter gets a 2.2L 4-cylinder turbo diesel engine that churns out 161 hp and 267 lbs.-ft. of torque. Helped by a new 7-speed transmission, the four-cylinder diesel improves fuel economy by 18% over the V6 diesel.
Claus Tritt, Mercedes’ general manager of commercial vans, says that more than half of Sprinter sales will be for the 4-cylinder. “Our planning assumptions were wrong,” said Tritt in regards to underestimating 4-cylinder demand.
Of course, many work truck users have already migrated to the plethora of small vans such as Ford Transit Connect, Nissan NV200 and new Chevrolet City Express that only run on four-cylinder gasoline engines.
The Alt-Fuel Upfit Process Evolves
In a quest to deliver a converted vehicle to the customer more quickly, CNG (compressed natural gas) and propane conversion companies are collocating with traditional truck body upfitters. The conversion company ships parts to the upfit companies’ installation centers, where a team employed by the upfitter does the conversions.
In a Ford scenario, alt-fuel converter Landi Renzo will send its CNG conversion kit to a Knapheide service body installation facility, and a Knapheide technician trained by Landi Renzo will perform the conversion. “It saves tremendously in order-to-delivery time,” said Richard Cupka, commercial vehicles sustainability lead for Ford.
The conversion process itself is becoming more streamlined. Traditionally, trucks are factory prebuilt with standard parts (such as fuel tanks) that are removed during the conversion. Freightliner Custom Chassis has developed two purpose-built chasses for propane autogas — with a dedicated propane injection system, 48-gallon propane tank and other systems integrations. This shortens order-to-delivery times and alleviates having to create an unnecessary fuel tank.
OEM-Installed GPS Tracking Systems are Here
Telematics provider Telogis announced a partnership with GM at the Work Truck Show in which fleets can factory order the Telogis telematics system with any GM vehicle that comes with OnStar.
This is a big step forward in the business model for telematics and fleet tracking. A factory-installed system eliminates the need for third-party aftermarket hardware and installation and the associated hassles, time and money. “This could be one of GM’s biggest differentiators in the market,” Ed Peper, head of fleet and commercial operations, said of the partnership.
The Telogis system is a cloud-based software platform that connects with OnStar, which means fleets with existing GM vehicles equipped with OnStar can sign up for Telogis and turn it on remotely without additional hardware. As well, fleets can install Telogis in non-GM vehicles to cover the entire fleet.
While the GM partnership promises unprecedented scope and scale, factory-installed fleet telematics isn’t brand-new: since 2011, Telogis has been powering the Ford Crew chief system for Ford F-150, Super Duty, E-Series and Transit Connect models. Telogis also has partnerships with truck makers Mack and Volvo to launch an integrated system this spring.
Gasoline – The New Alt Fuel?
With so much talk of natural gas, propane, diesel and electric vehicles, gasoline could be called “the new alternative fuel.” The new Ford F-650 and Ford F-750 Super Duty haulers are available with gas engines, which will sell for about $8,300 less than the diesel engines. “We have customers who were staunch diesel who are now going to gas,” said Todd Kaufman, Ford’s marketing manager.
When it comes to fuel economy of gas versus diesel in the medium duties, Kaufman said Ford has made engine improvements that have shrunk the difference to only about 15% in favor of diesel, while maintenance on the gasoline engines is half as costly as diesel.
Work truck users are more amenable to choosing gasoline over diesel in medium-duty applications today, Kaufman said, not only because of the favorable price point but also because the transmission has been optimized in the gasoline engine to give similar driving capabilities to diesel.
Electric Conversions Promise Payback
The electric truck market has stalled compared to the frenzy of five years ago. In the last two years, Ford ditched its Transit Connect Electric and Navistar is no longer making its eStar electric truck, while Eaton has dropped its Hydraulic Launch Assist system for diesel-electric hybrids.
Still, independent electric truck and van manufacturers such as Smith Electric and Boulder Electric Vehicles are alive and well, and Nissan is testing the Leaf’s all-electric powerplant in its small van, the NV200. Nissan is going to market with the e-NV200 in Japan and Europe; however it is “a year away from deciding on a release in the U.S. market,” said Peter Bedrosian, Nissan product planning manager.
Fleets admit to staying on the sidelines when it comes to electrification because the technology still relies on government subsidies to mitigate cost premiums. However, no one thinks that existing subsidies will remain for much longer. Additionally, the technological breakthrough for batteries with greater range hasn’t happened yet.
Third-party conversion companies might be the electric and hybrid-electric conversions that make more financial sense.
XL Hybrids retrofits trucks and vans with an electric motor and lithium-ion battery pack — with a promise to reduce emissions and fuel use by 20%. The conversion costs $10,000 for a van, so you can do the math on 20% fuel savings based on your driving characteristics.
The problem with larger work trucks, according to a representative from Lightning Hybrids, is that today’s battery packs don’t have power density to accelerate and decelerate in larger vehicles. Enter Lightning Hybrids’ hydraulic hybrid system, which uses hydraulic pumps and an accumulator tank to store braking energy and release it upon acceleration. “You can’t charge a battery that fast,” said Tim Reeser, the company’s president and co-founder.
VIA Motors swaps the transmissions out of GM trucks and vans and replaces them with its extended-range electric-drive powertrain that gives 40 miles on a charge. The company then sells directly to fleets as VTrux. The gulf between the VTrux pickup’s price of $80,000 and a standard Chevy Silverado is eye popping, though the company says the fuel savings pencil out for a truck that travels more than 22,000 miles a year on a VTrux lease.
Odyne Systems displayed a modular hybrid system that can be retrofitted to a range of medium- and heavy-duty work truck chassis. The company is just beginning sales.
Echo Automotive produces the EchoDrive bolt-on hybrid electric kit for fleet vehicles. This system took home the 2014 Work Truck Show’s “Green Award.”
EchoDrive is a plug-in system that provides torque assistance and recovers braking energy. While other hybrid systems replace or alter the OEM powertrain, EchoDrive bolts directly to the vehicle without altering the powertrain or the OEM warranty. The system is transferable.
Echo Automotive claims an ROI of 36 to 48 months in a half-ton van that goes 30,000 miles per year with a 1,000 lb. payload and $4 per gallon fuel. The system is scheduled for release later this year and will cost $12,500 plus install (about $500).