It’s Time To ‘Run Your Fleet On the Fuel You Sell’

art34The timing was right as Tucker Perkins spoke to BPN on July 27 about the Freightliner Custom Chassis Corp. (FCCC) 8.0L propane bobtail project. That week, representatives from several companies involved in the project were in Colorado, putting the bobtail through performance, altitude, and load testing. A few months earlier, some of those representatives were in Minnesota, testing the vehicle’s cold weather performance.
  “It’s all designed to give you reliability data that proves the vehicle can handle extreme conditions,” said Perkins, chief business development officer for the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC).
  Perkins expects the propane bobtail, which will be rated at 33,000 pounds gross vehicle weight (GVW), to be delivered to customers around March 2013. But a great deal of activity is still taking place before then, starting with the testing in Colorado. The vehicle team wants to be sure the product can perform well in what Perkins de­scribed as the extreme limits of the vehicle’s possible use. He explained that the team will check to see how the vehicle performs at certain altitudes, for example, and will study how it performs at 10,000 feet in hot weather, and then, in another example, how it performs at 10,000 feet fully loaded while traveling up steep grades.
  The group will then travel to Arizona, testing the vehicle in high temperatures under various scenarios. All that testing represents the difference between an original equipment manufacturer (OEM)-sponsored project and a non-OEM project, Perkins stated.
  “When [FCCC] puts its name on the badge, or for that matter, Ford or General Motors, you know the vehicles have been thoughtfully engineered and painfully tested to rigorous specifications,” he noted.
  For propane marketers, the new bobtail will fill a void that has existed since GM phased out of production its 8.1L engine for the medium-duty truck market at the end of calendar year 2009. Soon, propane marketers will again have an easier time using their own product to fuel the vehicles that deliver the product.
  Perkins is an appropriate person to address the various issues that have gone into the Freightliner bobtail project. He was previously with CleanFUEL USA when the FCCC project started, and CleanFUEL designed the fuel tank system assembly and the fuel rail system assembly for the Freightliner bobtail. Perkins chaired PERC’s engine fuel advisory committee from the committee’s inception in 2006 to 2009, and then he served as president of CleanFUEL USA from 2009 to last year. He joined PERC this past April. Perkins recalled that when PERC began involvement in the Freightliner project, an early funding docket was titled “8.0L LPG Engine — Agricultural and Medium-Duty Truck & Bus.” The agricultural product never materialized, but school buses from Thomas Built on the FCCC chassis are still on schedule and are set for delivery around the same time as the bobtail product.
  Perkins expects customers to begin receiving the bobtail product, which will feature the Allison 2000 series transmission, for delivery by March 2013. He has heard from some propane industry members that they preferred the 3000 series Allison transmission. “But Allison engineers are very comfortable that this 2000 series transmission is in fact the right one for this truck,” Perkins said. “We have designed this truck to handle a 3499-gal. bobtail in what we’ll call the rough conditions: mountains, altitude, and temperature.” The bobtail will feature more than 475 ft-lb of torque.
  FCCC unveiled the S2G chassis in March at the National Truck Equipment Association’s Work Truck Show in Indianapolis. Many propane industry members saw the chassis in April at the National Propane Gas Association’s Southeastern Convention and Trade Show. And although the product is just a few months away from being available for delivery, the new bobtail is still going through additional preparations before its release. Perkins said in July that altitude and temperature testing would take place for about nine weeks. The group will then assess the results of that testing, which could result in some design changes.
  Then the team will finalize the design and begin production runs, meaning FCCC will prepare its factory to install the engines in the trucks and train its employees on performing the installations.
  “By the time that’s all completed, it will be February, and we’ll be making trucks,” Perkins stated. Service manuals are being written, and the physical operations and maintenance manuals and warranty scripts are being prepared. “Freightliner takes the lead in all that. Hundreds of details are going on behind the scenes.”
  It’s a collaborative effort. All of the companies involved in the project, including Freightliner Custom Chassis (Gaffney, S.C.), CleanFUEL USA (Georgetown, Texas), Powertrain Integration (Madison Heights, Mich.), and Thomas Built Buses (High Point, N.C.), work as a team in completing the project.
  Bryan Henke, manager of product marketing for FCCC, said his company attended propane industry events and spoke to potential users to get the bobtail product right. Henke attended a meeting of the Propane Truck Builders Association during the National Propane Gas Assoc­ia­tion’s Southeastern Convention in Atlanta this past April, and said members of that group expressed a desire for the bobtail to be available sooner rather than later.
  “The product has so much interest, it’s mind-boggling,” Henke told BPN. “We wanted them to have a product that met as much of the market need right out of the gate. That’s the reason why we had to fine-tune it.” FCCC also carries a product called the S2C, which is a diesel-powered cutaway primarily for commercial bus applications. “So it was only a natural fit that we said, you know what, let’s take the S2C, bring it over to the commercial side, and we’ll call it the S2G.”
  Curtis Donaldson, CEO of CleanFUEL USA, told BPN that the propane industry’s enthusiasm was strong for a propane-powered bobtail when his company first worked on one with GM in 2006. He believes that enthusiasm is even stronger today because marketers like the FCCC chassis more than the earlier GM chassis.
  “The good news is, we’re back in the medium-duty world, so now people that operate medium-duty trucks will have a choice of something other than diesel: They’ve got propane,” Donaldson noted. “And, No. 2, it’s with a manufacturer that is well respected. Their chassis is highly desired. As I talked to propane dealers leading up to this for the past several years, they all told me the same thing: ‘This is the ultimate package. We love the GM 8-liter engine, and we love the Freightliner chassis.’ So you brought the engine we already favor and married it with the chassis we really like.”
  The propane industry supported the propane bobtail back when GM was in the medium-duty market, and that is one reason Donaldson is excited about the new FCCC bobtail. Prior to GM exiting the market in 2009, he estimated past sales of approximately 500 propane bobtails in 2006, and about 600 sold in 2008. He expected sales of about 800 in 2009 to 2010 before GM pulled the plug.
  “We worked hard to grow that market segment, and all of a sudden we had nothing,” he stated. The new product will offer advantages over the previous one because of FCCC’s quality work, Donaldson noted.
  “Freightliner is a big player in this market segment,” he said. “Losing the propane bobtail market in 2009 obviously hurt our industry, but now we have the ability to offer them the vehicles they need at an OEM level.”
  Ed Garda, senior engineering manager for Powertrain Integration, told BPN that although the FCCC product is meant as a replacement for the GM 8.1L engine, he does not see it that way because it’s an improved version of that engine.
  He explained that GM developed the 8.1L engine for use in light-duty engines as well as medium duty. But the new FCCC 8.0L engine is a dedicated medium-duty product. That frees up the Powertrain Integration team to work on areas that are more appropriate for the truck and bus markets, such as packaging issues, the drive configuration for the air brake compressor, alternator options, and air conditioner compressor options.
  “And we went to all-aluminum brackets, which we feel are even stronger than the iron brackets that were used on the 8.1,” Garda said. “So we have a smaller, lighter package with more flexibility for the OEMs and improved durability and serviceability for the end users.”
  The FCCC bobtail product will have the higher-GVW propane bobtail market to itself for about two years until Ford comes out with a 33,000 GVWR version of its F-650 chassis cab. In the meantime, Roush CleanTech plans to unveil its liquid propane autogas fuel system for the 30,000 GVWR Ford F-650 around the end of the first quarter or early in the second quarter of next year.
  Ford in the last model year began work to place a 6.8L, three-valve, V-10 gasoline engine into the F-650, and that’s the first step in Roush CleanTech’s work to launch its propane autogas-powered F-650, said Todd Mouw, vice president of sales and marketing for Roush CleanTech. That Ford engine and transmission configuration is the same as the Blue Bird Type C Vision propane autogas-powered school bus, Mouw said.
  “It’s a tried and true and proven engine and transmission that’s now in the medium-duty truck,” Mouw told BPN. “They’re just now going into production for the gasoline version of that F-650. That’s step one for us to get access to a vehicle that runs on gasoline. We’ve been working within Ford’s QVM Alternative Fuel Program to develop the propane autogas-powered F-650.”
  He added that the tank configuration for the F-650 will also fit on the higher-GVWR version set to launch in about two years.
  “We’ve heard from the industry that they want more propane-powered products,” Mouw stated. “Whether it’s Ford, Freightliner, or GM, I think it’s great for the industry that in the coming 12 to 24 months, there will be a lot more options for the propane industry, whether they’re bobtails, an F-550-size truck for cylinder delivery, or crane trucks.“
  While waiting for Ford to release the 6.8L, three-valve V-10 in the F-650, Roush CleanTech is also completing its own work to get the vehicle ready for launch. Mouw said his company is performing calibration work and what he described as “making sure the drivability and tank packaging of the vehicle is what the industry expects.”
  “We’re working with the supply base to design the components to make sure that what we design, they can manufacture,” Mouw said. “We’re going through all the engineering and quality checks to make sure that when we launch the product next year, the product meets or exceeds the customer’s expectations. The power of choice is good, Freightliner has a very capable product coming, Ford has a very capable product coming, and it’s time to run your fleet on the fuel you sell.
  “We also see a very bright future with the propane autogas-powered F-650 outside the propane industry, such as with municipal and private fleets,” Mouw added.
  As for the FCCC S2G, testing continues. CleanFUEL USA, for example, will check to ensure the fuel tank temperature and pressure are at adequate levels. Allison is separately testing its transmission.
  “These are some of the behind-the-scenes activities that go on with an OEM launch,” Perkins stated. “And this is no different than what the OEMs do when they launch a diesel or any other fuel product. We have every comfort that the product is going to launch on time and give us the horsepower, torque, performance, and fuel economy that we’re looking for and positively serve as a robust product for our industry.”     —Daryl Lubinsky