Peterbuild Hybrid Beverage Truck After an early run-up, diesel-electric hybrid truck sales have hit somewhat of a plateau, as the earliest adopters of the technology continue their real-world testing to gain a solid understanding of the economics involved in acquiring and operating the hybrid trucks.

To be certain, every reported experience with the hybrids to date has been positive. Fleets both large and small are realizing the promised fuel economy gains of roughly 30 percent when the hybrids are deployed on appropriate routes (urban, stop-and-go, high-cycle). 

In spite of the hybrid systems’ complexity, problems with the new hardware have been virtually non-existent. The lone problem we are aware of, was on one unit, and the fix was limited to literally just flipping a switch to enable the hybrid control unit’s cooling system. This is in stark contrast to the plethora of engine-related problems experienced industry-wide following the debut of the 2007 compliant emission control systems.

However, even with the positive experiences, the hybrid technology has yet to make an appreciable “footprint” on the total beverage fleet, or in any other fleet segment for that matter. Over the past year, a much-touted forecast claiming annual sales of 100,000 hybrid trucks globally by 2015, has appeared pretty much anywhere there was available space. Pro-hybrid industry insiders, on the other hand, consider that forecast to be exponentially high.

To provide some perspective, there are currently about 1,000 hybrid trucks/tractors operating in the North American beverage market. Among all fleet segments, the beverage market appears to have the second-highest number of hybrids in operation, with transit being the top segment.

Within the marketplace, Coca-Cola Refreshments (CCR) operates the largest number of hybrids, with about 650 units as of the most recent count. While this number sounds impressive, it only represents less than 6.5 percent of the company’s medium/heavy-duty power-unit fleet, and less than 2 percent of the company’s total on-highway vehicle fleet. PepsiCo operates a similarly large hybrid fleet in terms of total units deployed, but again, compared with the company’s total fleet, the hybrids are a very small percentage.

Moving away from the cola giants, the hybrid counts drop dramatically. Across all of its U.S. operating divisions, Nestlé Waters North America (NWNA) is likely to push its total hybrid count past three dozen by the end of this year. On a percentage basis, the largest single deployment of hybrid trucks is in the fleet of Powers Distributing, a MillerCoors distributor in Lake Orion, Mich., with 21 hybrids in the company’s total fleet of 44 trucks.

From there, the hybrid counts at other beverage fleets drop into the single digits, with typically two to four units per fleet, regardless of total fleet size. These fleets are typically distributors, rather than major bottlers, and are generally run by the most tech-savvy of fleet managers, using the small “test” deployments to collect operating data from their own real-world testing.

As previously noted, the hybrids are easily meeting their targets for fuel economy, and there are even anecdotal reports suggesting that the hybrid fuel economy is better still with the truck equipped with an on-board feedback display that helps the driver get the most out of the hybrid technology.

While maintenance of the hybrid-specific components has been negligible in these mostly newer trucks, there are indications that the technology will reduce maintenance in some non-hybrid areas of the trucks, most notably, in brake relines.

Because the technology provides “regenerative braking,” which uses the hybrid system to slow the truck (capturing normally lost energy and storing it for later use) wear on the truck’s conventional braking system is reduced dramatically.

Unfortunately, few of the hybrid trucks in service are old enough at this point to have required their first brake reline, so there are no meaningful statistics on brake maintenance savings available just yet. By the end of 2012, there should be early data on the hybrid brake savings—stay tuned.

Of course, the 800-pound hybrid gorilla in the room is battery replacement. By the time the oldest of the hybrid beverage trucks reaches its first battery replacement, it’s safe to assume that battery technology will have improved at least a generation or two compared with the oldest hybrid batteries in operation. While these improvements will undoubtedly include longer life and better efficiency, it’s a virtual certainty that the improvement will also include a lower price tag on the batteries.

So, with an overall positive operating experience, why aren’t more hybrids making their way into beverage fleets? In a word, cost. Not just acquisition cost, but fuel cost as well.

Perhaps the single biggest blow to hybrid truck sales came when the Obama Administration failed to renew the Bush-era tax credit for deployment of hybrid commercial trucks. Although there has been some discussion of renewing the hybrid tax incentives, recent reports of proposed truck fuel economy regulations indicate a policy shift from some carrot to all stick on this topic. 

The renewal of incentives is critical to hybrid deployment because even with the tax credit, realistic break-even projections required fuel prices to be in the mid-$4/gallon range, not just for a month or two during the summer, but for the entire life of the asset. 

Even with unprecedented “unfriendliness” to energy prices, the annual average U.S. price for diesel is unlikely to climb above $3.75/gallon for 2011. It’s a bit early for a 2012 annual fuel price forecast, but barring any natural or man-made disasters, there’s no betting on annual average diesel prices in the $4.50 range for 2012, nor for several years into the future.

Perhaps once more solid numbers on brake maintenance savings come about, or positive news on the battery front, there will be a chance to recalculate the ROI for hybrid trucks, both with and without tax incentives.

But, in the meantime, there’s a cost gap that will need to be charged against the budgets for R&D and/or community relations to justify adding any hybrids.

 

via Beverage World