‘Big Brown’ Gives Propane Autogas a Big Boost

Prior to the March announcement, UPS operated approximately 3150 alternative fuel vehicles, including electric, electric hybrids, hydraulic hybrids, LNG, CNG, biomethane, and ethanol vehicles, in addition to a handful of propane models. The business’ global alternative-fuel fleet includes vehicles in the U.S., Germany, Canada, the Netherlands, Chile, Thailand, Hong Kong, Brazil, and the United Kingdom.

Although UPS operates 900 propane vehicles in Canada, until this past month the company had only used propane vehicles sparingly in the U.S. That changed with the March 5 announcement.

The UPS deal continues a trend for package delivery companies adopting propane for their vehicle fleets. In 2012, DHL Express launched 100 Ford E-250 vans for package pickup and delivery, equipped with the Roush CleanTech (Livonia, Mich.) dedicated liquid propane autogas fuel system. More recently, Chase Delivery (Lancaster, N.Y.), a contractor for FedEx Ground, used incentives from Federal Express to purchase a Ford F-59 delivery truck that runs on a Roush CleanTech dedicated propane system (see p. 29). The truck will serve FedEx Ground’s high-mileage route in Buffalo.

Asked when UPS began looking at propane autogas vehicles as an option, Mike Casteel, the company’s director of fleet procurement, said that was difficult to pinpoint, because the company is in constant communications with vehicle manufacturers about technological advancements. Since Freightliner Custom Chassis Corp. (FCCC; Gaffney, S.C.) was already UPS’ primary chassis provider for the delivery vehicles, it frequently discusses alternatives with the manufacturer regarding the mid-size truck market. Over the past year or two, UPS began the work of getting propane vehicles in its fleet and in recent months began working with several companies to develop an economical option to natural gas. The company last summer completed a pilot program, testing 20 vehicles on propane.

UPS tested them for performance and even installed a propane autogas station near the company’s corporate office in Gainesville, Ga. Although the pilot vehicles have run about 200,000 miles in total, the drivers in the test group quickly determined that the vehicles performed just as well as gasoline models. UPS liked various aspects of propane vehicles that the propane industry has always promoted, such as low cost of the infrastructure compared to other fuels and the lower contamination impact of the infrastructure on the ground, water, and air. Add to that the benefits of the increased range of propane vehicles and the portability of propane compared to CNG, and they saw a winner.

The completed UPS vehicle, which was on display at the Work Truck Show, is a team effort from FCCC, which builds the chassis; CleanFUEL USA (Georgetown, Texas), the liquid propane injection (LPI) fueling system provider; and Powertrain Integration (Madison Heights, Mich.), which supplies the GM 6L engine and packages the entire system into the FCCC truck. PERC provided $780,000 toward the infrastructure project and helped with vehicle certification.

Transitioning to propane autogas is “simply another part of our alternative fuel strategy that has a somewhat different deployment profile than natural gas,” Casteel added. “It’s something we’re able to take advantage of in smaller deployments in rural areas where a natural gas deployment would not be possible. Access to fuel or the economies of scale that are necessary to justify the infrastructure for natural gas is a completely different financial picture than propane.”