OEM panel looks at natural gas truck market

Jason Cannon

May 6, 2014

Infrastructure isn’t the only thing holding back development of natural gas’ place in trucking. A fleet panel featuring all major North American truck OEMs at the Alternative Clean Transportation (ACT) Expo Tuesday in Long Beach, Calif. took a serious look at overcoming a timid market and where it’s headed.

Fleets unsure of the truck’s resale value have been hesitant to commit sizable portions of their budget to trucks that can be difficult to sell for a yet-to-be determined amount.

“The early 9-liters are just now seeing the secondary market, but the residual curve is similar to diesel,” says Andy Douglas, National Sales Manager for Kenworth Truck Company, adding all eyes are on the secondhand value of the natural gas engine the industry waited so many years to arrive: the 12 liter.

“There’s not enough 12 liters in the market to get an idea of residual value,” Douglas adds.

While there may not be enough on the secondary market to determine a realistic value, Bob Carrick, Natural Gas Sales Manager for Freightliner Trucks, says the verdict on the 12 liter natural gas engine is already in.

“The 12 liter has really been a hit so far,” he says.

And while residual values of natural gas trucks is still under development, Roy Horton, Powertrain Product marketing Manager, Mack Trucks, says determining factors aren’t hard to identify.

“That will be determined by performance and reliability to engines and fuel systems,” he says.

Frank Bio, Director of Sales Development, Speciality Vehicles & Alternative Fuels for Volvo Trucks, says secondary value has been hard to pinpoint simply because the basic principal of economics – supply and demand – is mostly inapplicable.

“There’s not many in supply and there’s not a lot of demand right now,” he says.

Most industry experts expect natural gas trucks to make up roughly 10 percent of heavy truck sales by 2020, which would equate to around 25,000 trucks annually. Last year was a better-than-expected year for sales of green trucks, which has left some OEM wondering if that figure should be adjusted.

“2013 was tipping point for on-road trucks,” Douglas says. “We’re seeing dynamic growth. If you compare the truck we built seven years ago (to today), it’s night and day.”

“Driver reception of natural gas trucks has been great,” Horton adds. “There’s been no complaints about power and performance…people are starting to get a little more comfortable with operating a natural gas vehicle.”

But not everyone is sold on an upswing in the natural gas market. Bio says he thinks the natural gas truck market is in a slight dip between the innovators who embraced the trucks early on, and the early majority who will embrace it once they’ve seen what to expect.

“We’re starting that curve all over again,” he says. “I don’t think it’s going to be difficult to get (to 25,000), but I expect a slight dip.”

Douglas says his forecasts call for the industry to meet the 10 percent expectations much sooner than 2020 – like in the next 2-3 years.

Charles Cook, Marketing Manager – Vocation Products, Peterbilt Motors, says the ongoing construction of CNG stations has brought more NatGas truck buyers to the table, and that will continue to be a major factor going forward.

“(As) CNG stations have spread, I think that will really turn up the volume,” he says.

“Twenty thousand (trucks) a year is an aggressive goal, but I think we’re gearing up toward that.”

Douglas says the 2014 truck market has been a pleasant unexpected surprise, bringing back order backlogs that haven’t been seen in five-plus years.

“We’re moving back to a more normalized market,” he says. “We’re trying to tell customers not to wait (to order trucks). All the OEs expect to be sold out in the not-so-distant future.”

Bio says quote activity has picked up and many now include a mixture of diesel and natural gas units.

“Customers that are out quoting for 50 to 100 trucks are now starting to talk more and more about natural gas,” he said. “Some deals, the entire deal hinges on the availability of natural gas trucks as part of the whole quote package.”

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