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November 30, 2012 11:45 AM, EST
Higher Volumes Seen Boosting Development of Natural Gas Engines, Manufacturers Say
John Sommers II for Transport Topics

ARLINGTON, Va. — Executives from truck and engine makers said competition and higher production volumes will lead to cost reductions for natural-gas trucks, which are more expensive than diesel models.

“As we go from volume [where] we are now to where we think we’ll be, certainly there are efficiencies to be gained in the manufacturing process,” said T.J. Reed, director of product strategy for Freightliner Trucks.

Bill Dawson, senior advisor for group trucks sales and marketing at Volvo Group, said it “doesn’t hurt if the government leads” in the push for natural gas trucks, but “what we need is scale.”

The truck and engine makers spoke on a Thursday afternoon panel at American Trucking Associations’ Summit on Natural Gas in Trucking. The panel was moderated by Transport Topics Editorial Director Howard Abramson.

Jim Arthurs, president of Cummins Westport Inc., said the Class 8 truck market is so large that “a relatively modest share in that segment gets us into some very nice volumes, where we can start to see production efficiencies, supplier efficiencies and all those things.

“We very much would like to get to where the engine cost differential between the diesel engine and [natural] gas engine is not really a big factor in your decision,” he added.

Natural gas as an option for heavy-duty trucking begins in earnest this year with the unveiling of a 12-liter engine to complement first one type of 15-liter power plant, and then another variation around 2015.

Executives repeatedly referred to Cummins Westport’s ISX-12G as a “game changer.” The engine goes into limited production in Jamestown, N.Y., in the spring and fall production next summer, Arthurs said.

The company’s 9-liter ISL-G is in use currently, but cannot pull the heavier loads that normally require a 12-or 15-liter engine.

Westport Innovations, one of CW’s two parents, sells a 15-liter, dual-fuel engine now that uses more than 90% natural gas along with some diesel. Cummins Inc. is working on a 2015 launch for an all-natural gas 15-liter model.

Apart from the engine, the other large added expense associated with natural-gas trucks is the fuel tanks, said Steve Gilligan, vice president of product and vocational marketing at Navistar Inc.

“It’s a relatively immature market; you don’t have a lot of competition,” he said. “As the volumes increase, I think you’re going to see the tank prices get much more affordable as well.”

Andy Douglas, national sales manager for Kenworth Truck Co., said “competition is a wonderful thing. As we start to see people move into this business, whether it’s on the fueling side or the truck side, competition is the great equalizer. As a result, we have already seen and will continue to see a progression of reduced costs.”