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Hybrid electric power makes the most sense for trucks that make numerous stops and starts, like utility vehicles, analysts say.

Courtesy Daimler Trucks North America

By Ker Than

for National Geographic News

Published June 6, 2010

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

Don’t expect to see electric-powered 18-wheelers roaring down the interstate any time soon. What you are more likely to see are smaller highly fuel-efficient utility trucks and buses on neighborhood streets, and lots of them.  Analysts project that hundreds of thousands of them will be on our roads within the next five years.

A new report by Pike Research, a research marketing firm that focuses on clean technologies, predicts that the global market for hybrid medium and heavy-duty trucks and buses will increase from 9,000 vehicles in 2010 to more than 100,000 vehicles in 2015. This year and next year, mainstream truck brands Navistar and Freightliner will even start to offer  medium-duty trucks that run on electric power alone, joining several smaller, new brands that are already on the market.

During the five-year period, Pike predicts that more than 300,000 hybrid trucks will be sold worldwide. This would represent a 63 percent year-over-year increase in hybrid truck and bus demand, said report author Dave Hurst.

In comparison, the demand for consumer hybrid passenger vehicles such as the Toyota Prius is expected to increase by only about 13 percent year-over-year for the next five years. In the United States, in fact, as the recession hit the car industry overall hard sales of passenger hybrids fell from their 2007 peak of 350,000 sold to just under 300,000 sold last year.

(Related, Green Guide: Car Buying Guide)

The cost of fuel will be the driving factor that will boost hybrid truck sales, Hurst expects. Currently, diesel fuel makes up anywhere from 17 to 50 percent of a trucking company's total operating costs. Hybrid systems could reduce those costs significantly.

Fleet managers who switch to hybrid trucks "could see anywhere from 5 to 50 percent fuel economy gains, depending on how the hybrid system is integrated and what type of truck you're attaching it to," Hurst said.

(Related, Even Modest Increases in MPG Can Equal Big Gas Savings)

Bill Van Amburg is the senior vice president of CALSTART and the program executive of the Hybrid Truck Users Forum (HTUF), which has advocated for hybrid trucks for the past decade.

Van Amburg said Pike Research's forecast for hybrid adoption among the trucking industry is in line with what his group and others have predicted.

"This is tremendous validation of the work we've done with our partners. We're very proud of that," he said.

Insulation Against Rising Fuel Costs

Van Amburg said the shift to hybrid technologies would be driven largely by a desire among fleet managers to insulate themselves from rising and wildly fluctuating fuel costs.

"Whether it happens tomorrow or in five years, we know [fuel] prices are going to go up, and it's going to go up pretty significantly," Van Amburg said. "If fleets can reduce their dependency on fuel, at least they're less at risk as it goes up and down."

(Related, Tapped Out: World Oil Demand is Surging as Supplies Approach Their Limits)

Hybrid adoption could also help the environment by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

"It's a one-to-one ratio between [carbon dioxide] emission and fuel use," Van Amburg said. "If you cut your fuel use by 10 percent, you're cutting your carbon by 10 percent."

Robert Brasswell, technical director of the American Trucking Associations, thinks the greatest benefit will come from using hybrid technology to fuel medium-sized trucks,  such as those used by utility companies.

"In addition to moving around, these trucks do work. Once they get to where they need to be, they fix things or run tools," Brasswell said. "With a hybrid vehicle, you have a ready-made source of electrical power onboard so you don't have to tote a generator behind you."

Trucks used for hauling freight long distances will show the least savings, Braswell said.

Harnessing a Truck’s Braking Power

That's because modern hybrid trucks require frequent braking to recharge the batteries, a technique called regenerative braking. Long haul trucks don't brake as often as trucks involved in so-called pickup-and-go operations.

"Think of an over-the-road operation from New York to Los Angeles. Once you're out of towns and get on the highway system, you may touch the brakes only once an hour," Brasswell said.

Regenerative braking is why transit buses and trucks that make frequent stops—such as trash pickup vehicles or UPS delivery trucks—will show the most cost savings when they switch to hybrid.

By far the biggest barrier to hybrid truck adoption right now is cost, Hurst said.

A hybrid truck or bus can cost anywhere from 40 to 70 percent more than a fuel-only model. For example, a heavy-duty transit bus chassis costs about $300,000, but adding a hybrid battery system can run an additional $190,000, Hurst said.

"Batteries right now cost roughly $800 to $1,000 per kilowatt-hour," he said. "To be able to move something as large as a bus, you need a 100- or 150-kilowatt battery pack, so the costs can add up pretty quickly."

In the United States, there are currently federal tax incentives and state vouchers to help fleet managers offset the cost of switching. California, for example, offers a $35,000 hybrid voucher incentive program to help cover the cost of a hybrid truck if it operates within the state, Hurst said.

(See Related, Are You Energy-Wise or Are You An Energy Waster?)

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