Fueling new opportunities in upfitting

A WHILE BACK, Trailer/Body Builders published a detailed report on the use of alternative fuels in the commercial truck industry and the promise they hold as cleaner, potentially less expensive ways to power commercial trucks.

Our 11-page report pointed out the benefits of alternative-fueled vehicles, particularly for compressed natural gas. We showed various configurations of fuel tanks, reported on vehicles powered by other fuels as well — including electricity and even hydrogen — and told about small compressing stations that allow CNG-fueled vehicles to be refueled in the comfort of their own home. Don't you think it would be cutting edge to have your own natural gas compressor in your garage to refuel your set of wheels?

All of this may have a familiar ring to it, but the report ran in the July 1992 edition of Trailer/Body Builders.

Much has happened in those 21 years. And a lot has failed to happen. A baby born in 1992 has, according to the laws of states throughout America, achieved full adulthood. But to a great extent, the use of alternative fuels still remains in its infancy.

Why? Technology has advanced substantially during the past two decades, allowing engines, transmissions, and an array of other electronic components to work together in ways that just didn't happen in 1992. Remember, that was only a few years after Bill Gates declared no one would ever need more than 640K of computing power.

Changes in social and environmental perspectives over the past couple of decades also have helped to create more fertile ground for alternative fuels to grow. No one wants to sully Mother Nature, and alternative fuels tend to treat Mom kindly. And of course the rising price of gas and diesel is making the use of other fuels more competitive.

While these and other changes have changed favorably to pave the road for fuels other than gasoline and diesel, inertia has proved to be hard to overcome. Particularly elusive has been an answer to the infrastructure issue. Who wants to buy a car if refueling stations are not close by, and who wants to build a station if there aren't enough vehicles around to support it?

Infrastructure and other challenges require patience. A pot of water sits relatively still for a long time before it begins to boil. That appears to be the case with alternative fuel adoption among commercial truck users. After heating up gradually, the use of alternative fuels in the commercial truck industry definitely is coming to a boil. For example, General Motors said in our 1992 report that the company hoped to produce 2,000 pickups powered by CNG. The target was gas utility fleets since they had the compressors in place that are required to refuel CNG vehicles. By contrast, our cover story this month involves a truck equipment distributor that celebrated its 2,000th CNG installation last year and may achieve that volume annually now that the company has opened a dedicated ship-through facility designed to upfit alternatively fueled trucks for (ironically) General Motors. (See Page 20 for details).

We have long considered alternative fuels as an opportunity for the truck equipment industry, at least since researching that 1992 report. At the time, General Motors was expressing support for retrofit kits that upfitters could install. The truck manufacturer had just announced the availability of a 5.7-liter engine that could be converted to dual fuel. An upfitter could install the kit without affecting the factory warranty. In that same issue, we featured a distributor in California that was converting GM trucks for a utility customer with relative ease.

Today the sales of these systems are much higher, but so are the barriers to entry. Not every local truck equipment distributor has the resources to open a ship-through facility, the trained staff to do the work, or the sophisticated process control procedures that are required.

Performing alternative fuel upfits seems consistent with where the commercial truck equipment business is heading. It's not something that anyone with a crescent wrench can offer. Big opportunities involve substantial risk and deep pockets.

Not surprisingly, it is becoming a field where strategic partnerships help make companies competitive in this market. For example, Utilimaster a few weeks ago announced the completion of a preferred installer agreement with BAF Technologies, a subsidiary of Clean Fuels Corp. Under the terms of the agreement, Utilimaster will be the exclusive and preferred installer of the BAF compressed natural gas system on Ford's F-59 stripped chassis — a popular chassis for walk-in vans.

It has taken time, money, and creativity to bring alternative fuels to a boil. It will be interesting to see what the implications are for the truck equipment industry and how upfitters and their will respond.

Agree or disagree? Make your voice heard by visiting trailer-bodybuilders.com and clicking on “Contact Us”. Follow us on Twitter @trailerbb

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