There are new options for truck fleets looking to go green: Chrysler and GM have introduced three compressed natural gas (CNG) models that will arrive at fleet garages ready to use, eliminating the time and expense of taking delivery and sending the vehicle to an aftermarket upfitter.
In addition to the convenience of having a CNG system installed prior to delivery, fleets will also get the added benefit of having the truck’s fuel system covered under the same warranty as the rest of the vehicle.
The introduction of these new products is the result of market demand, an example of how the desire to have alternative-fuel vehicles as part of fleets is becoming a growing need for the industry.
The Ram 2500 Heavy Duty (HD) CNG pickup from Chrysler is designed specifically for fleet and commercial customers.
According to Bob Hegbloom, director of Ram Truck, the inspiration for the vehicle came from meetings the company had with natural gas suppliers beginning in 2009. “The natural gas consortiums were looking for a vehicle that was designed, tested, and integrated by the OEM,” he said.
The result was the Ram 2500 HD CNG, which is powered by a 5.7L HEMI V-8. The engine has been modified to run on CNG as well as gasoline. Redesigned cylinder heads with specifically designed CNG-compatible valves and valve-seat materials allow the engine to burn both fuels. The engine also has a second, CNG-specific fuel rail and set of injectors. The specially designed spark plugs help improve combustion and durability, and a new powertrain control module allows the HEMI to seamlessly operate on either of the two fuel sources.
Hegbloom said that the development of the CNG pickup came at a fortuitous time. “It gave us the opportunity to use our partnership with Fiat,” he said.
According to the company, Fiat, which is part of the Chrysler Group, is the dominant CNG manufacturer in Europe with a more than 80-percent share of the market. Ram used Fiat’s expertise and European experience to assist in the development of the U.S. pickup.
The Ram 2500 HD’s CNG is stored in two 18.2 gasoline-gallon-equivalent (GGE) tanks in the bed of the pickup. According to Hegbloom, the tanks are bolted to the 2500 HD’s frame and surrounded by a high-strength steel case for added protection and safety. The tanks measure approximately four feet by four feet, leaving four feet of usable storage space. In addition, there is an eight-gallon gasoline tank. The capless CNG filler is located next to the gasoline fuel neck and is accessed through the Ram’s fuel-filler door[PAGEBREAK]
The CNG-only range of the pickup is 255 miles, and the gasoline backup extends the range to 367 miles. While gasoline is needed to start the engine, the Ram 2500 HD CNG is designed to run exclusively on natural gas and seamlessly switch to gasoline once it is depleted.
Unlike some other systems, there are no operator fuel switches on the instrument panel. The transition from fuels is automatic — and, according to the company, unnoticed by the driver. Drivers can monitor natural gas consumption with a CNG-specific fuel gauge that sits adjacent to the gasoline fuel gauge.
The Ram 2500 HD CNG offers heavy-duty capability to fleets, including 1,580 lbs. of payload and 7,650 lbs. of towing capability. The Ram 2500 is delivered ready to tow and its standard equipment includes an integrated 4- and 7-pin connectors along with a Class IV hitch receiver.
The Ram 2500 CNG will be available exclusively as a crew cab 4x4 model with a 169-inch wheelbase in either the ST or SLT trim level.
While the first vehicles are scheduled to roll off the company’s Mexico assembly lines in late June, Hegbloom noted the company has already been taking orders.
Many of the fleets that have already committed to the pickup are in the natural gas business, including Piedmont Gas and Chesapeake Energy. But, other ancillary natural gas businesses are placing orders as well. “Now, all of a sudden, auxiliary businesses want to support the industry as well. This is where we’ll really see this vehicle take off. It’s really exciting to see the momentum behind it,” Hegbloom said.
The 2500 HD CNG comes with a five-year/100,000-mile powertrain limited warranty, which covers the HEMI V-8 and transmission, and adds internal engine components specific to CNG: upgraded valves, valve seats, fuel injectors and rail, and specially designed spark plugs. An additional three-year/36,000-mile bumper-to-bumper limited warranty covers the rest of the vehicle.
Taken together, Hegbloom said that the Ram 2500 HD CNG is an attractive option for all fleet operations. “You have good cost of operation with no loss of capacity. We’ve got the right package for fleets,” he said.
As of press time, the Ram 2500 HD CNG has a base price of $47,500, including the $995 destination charge. While there isn’t a fleet incentive at this time, Hegbloom indicated this could be a possibility.
The only looming challenge for fleets outside the energy industry is the availability of a sufficient fueling infrastructure. Hegbloom believes that as Ram and other manufacturers begin to offer more dedicated, factory-produced CNG models, it will force the hand of the industry to build fueling stations. “The only question is how fast this will occur,” he said.
But, it will grow, in his opinion. He pointed to the so-called “NG Corridor” between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles, the U.S. region that has most readily embraced natural gas, as an example of fueling-following-function. The corridor is dotted with an ever-growing number of public CNG stations that make it convenient for both fleets and consumers to fill up their alternative-fuel vehicles.
The bottom line for Hegbloom is that moving into the CNG market is the right move for Ram, since “natural gas is safe, clean, and abundant,” he said.
Delivering to Customers
GM’s decision to commit to two bi-fuel pickup models was driven by its customers. “In the past, we’ve had customers coming to us looking for a CNG pickup with a ¾-ton extended cab,” explained Joyce Mattman, director, GM Commercial Product and Specialty Vehicles.
The result is the bi-fuel 2013 Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra 2500 HD extended cab pickup trucks. The vehicles include a CNG-capable Vortec 6.0L V-8 engine that seamlessly transitions between CNG and gasoline fuel systems. Combined, the trucks offer a range of more than 650 miles, and offer almost identical mpg to a conventional gasoline engine — but run on the lower-costing CNG. In addition, the vehicles have performance capabilities very close to their gasoline-powered cousins. “Aside from the box space, these vehicles have the same utility as that of any Sierra or Silverado, with the lower natural gas fuel price,” said Mike Jones, product manager for GM Fleet & Commercial Operations (FCO).
Mattman said that any fleet involved in the natural gas industry would be a natural fit for the new pickups, adding that government fleets and fleets interested in going green would also benefit from the CNG vehicles. “This is a national fleet issue,” she said.
The hardened V-8 engine is started using a small amount of gasoline, and, when the engine and other components reach pre-determined temperatures, it switches to using the CNG. Once the CNG is depleted, then it will transition to gasoline.
Because range anxiety is a factor when discussing an alternative fuel, according to Jones, the bi-fuel system will help to eliminate any fears. “Because of the bi-fuel system, drivers can be confident that they won’t run out of fuel if they venture outside the range of a CNG fueling station,” he said.
The Sierra and Silverado CNG models can run just on gasoline if no CNG is available. The trucks will be available in standard and long box with either two- or four-wheel drive.
The single 17-GGE tank is mounted in the bed of the truck, bolted to the frame and protected by a black aluminum diamond plate cover. “Our intention was to minimize the amount of space that the tank took up in the bed of the truck,” Mattman said. In the short box trucks, there is approximately 30 percent less storage and in the long box about 25 percent less storage because of the tank, leaving over 4-6 feet of space respectively.
While bi-fuel vehicles are nothing new to the market — and not new to GM, which has had a dedicated CNG van on the market since 2010 — what is new with the Sierra and Silverado options is that GM is offering its first bi-fuel systems on these models through IMPCO, a GM tier-one supplier. Among the biggest advantages that fleets will get from the automaker-certified system is the GM warranty.
The CNG-powered Sierra and Silverado will be covered by GM’s three-year/36,000-mile new vehicle limited warranty and five-year/100,000-mile limited powertrain warranty — including the hardened engine and fuel system, according to Jones — and vehicle emissions warranty, meeting all U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and California Air Resources Board (CARB) emission certification requirements.
The trucks will be built at the company’s Fort Wayne, Ind., plant and then sent to IMPCO for installation of the CNG bi-fuel delivery and storage system, under GM’s manufacturing quality standards. The vehicle is then shipped by GM to the fleet. The upfitting process adds about four weeks to the order-to-delivery, according to Jones.
Mattman noted that the IMPCO-installed system brings other advantages to fleet customers. “As trucks have gotten more complicated, it has become increasingly difficult for aftermarket upfitters to reverse engineer the fuel systems. With a factory-installed system like ours, you get complete uniformity. You are getting completely General Motors technology with the systems in the Sierra and Silverado,” she explained.
For drivers, the benefits of a CNG truck are a cleaner running vehicle that handles like a conventional gasoline truck. “Drivers have reported that CNG vehicles don’t feel any different than gasoline-powered ones,” Mattman observed.
While the company has high hopes for the CNG pickups, there are some concerns about the natural gas infrastructure. “We’re staying close to the issue of infrastructure, but it’s a chicken and egg issue — you can’t have an infrastructure without vehicles and vice versa. It’s quite a complex issue,” Mattman said, adding that the biggest natural gas markets are in California, Oklahoma, Utah, and New York.
Obviously, one of the biggest impediments to building up the fueling infrastructure is its cost. Each CNG fueling station costs, on average, $1 million, so it won’t be built “overnight,” Mattman said.
No matter the challenges the alternative fuel poses, Mattman is confident about the CNG Sierra and Silverado models. “We think these are the right products for the fleet market right now,” she said.
The automaker began taking orders in April with a delivery date sometime in fourth-quarter 2012, according to Jones, adding that they will likely carry the same fleet incentive as the gasoline models.[PAGEBREAK]
Facts About CNG Vehicles
CNG is growing in popularity across the U.S. and the globe.
● There are about 150,000 natural gas vehicles on U.S. roads and more than 13 million worldwide.
● The U.S. ranks 14th in the world for natural gas vehicles with less than 1 percent.
● The International Association of Natural Gas Vehicles estimates there will be more than 50 million natural gas vehicles worldwide within the next 10 years — about 9 percent of the world’s transportation fleets.
● While the U.S. imports more than 60 percent of the oil it uses, 98 percent of the natural gas used in the U.S. is produced in North America.