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October 6, 2014 2:45 AM, EDT

Volvo Trucks Halts Plans to Launch Nat-Gas Engine

By Seth Clevenger, Staff Reporter

This story appears in the Oct. 6 print edition of Transport Topics.

Volvo Trucks said last week it has postponed plans to launch its own 13-liter liquefied natural-gas engine in North America.

“The launch is on hold indefinitely as we continue to monitor the market and the growth of the infrastructure,” said John Mies, vice president of communications for Volvo Group North America. “The work on the engine is continuing but at a slower pace.”

The D13-LNG, announced in 2012, was expected to feature compression-ignition technology and use a small amount of diesel as a pilot fuel to ignite the LNG.

Volvo’s engine postponement follows another natural-gas engine delay by Cummins Inc., as the industry slowly develops an LNG fueling network.

Volvo said it will continue to offer the spark-ignited Cummins Westport natural-gas engines for its VNM and VNL models. The engines can run on either LNG or compressed natural gas, or CNG.

“Development of the natural-gas infrastructure to support longhaul trucking has been modest over the last year, and the needs of customers in the primary markets for natural-gas vehicles — regional haul and dedicated routes — are being met with the company’s current natural-gas lineup,” Volvo said in a statement Oct. 1.

“We believe that right now, the time is not right for our proprietary LNG engine, and we’ll continue to watch the way the market evolves,” Mies added.

Volvo also said it continues to believe that dimethyl ether, or DME, “holds promise as a heavy-truck fuel.”

Volvo said customer field testing will continue for its vehicles powered by DME, which can be produced from natural gas.

However, Volvo said it was no longer committed to a set timeframe to launch its DME vehicles. At a press conference last year, the company said it planned to begin selling them in 2015.

Volvo’s move to delay its 13-liter LNG engine follows Cummins Inc.’s decision earlier this year to put a hold on its planned 15-liter spark-ignited product, the ISX15 G.

These two developments mean the trucking industry will need to continue waiting for a larger natural-gas engine option than the 11.9-liter ISX12 G, which Cummins offers through its joint venture with Westport Innovations.

That spark-ignited engine, launched last year, offers ratings up to 400 horsepower and 1,450 pound-feet of torque and can use CNG or LNG.

Analysts and manufacturers have hailed the ISX12 G as the product that would enable natural gas to garner a more significant share of the Class 8 truck market, but the industry still lacks an option for higher power and torque needs.

Westport previously sold its own 15-liter LNG engine for Kenworth and Peterbilt trucks but discontinued that product last year.

Cummins Westport also offers the 8.9-liter ISL G, but the primary markets for that product have been refuse trucks and buses.

When Volvo first announced the D13-LNG two years ago, it said it planned to launch the engine during 2014, but company executives later extended that timeframe.

In May, executives said the company planned to roll out the LNG engine by late 2015. Volvo showcased a prototype of the D13-LNG at the 2013 Mid-America Trucking Show and billed it as the industry’s first integrated natural-gas engine.

Roe East, general manager for Cummins’ natural-gas business, confirmed last week the company’s ISX15 G program “continues on pause due to uncertainty regarding the industry’s readiness for longhaul natural-gas fleet operation.”

He said the adoption rate for natural gas in the longhaul segment will depend on factors beyond engine availability, including fuel-tank technology, the availability of vehicles powered by the fuel and the growth of fueling infrastructure.

In the meantime, the market for natural-gas trucks in regional haul continues to grow, and the ISX12 G has been “well-received” since its launch last year, East said.

“As the population of ISX12 G-powered trucks grows, it will encourage the expansion of natural-gas fueling infrastructure and tank technology, and pave the way for

a successful launch of the ISX15 natural-gas engine in the future,” he said.

Based on the current state of the natural-gas truck market, most customers are gravitating toward CNG rather than LNG, said analyst Ken Vieth, founder and general manager at ACT Research.

He said 90-95% of the natural-gas truck orders coming in are for CNG vehicles.

“The movement is toward CNG because it’s a lower-cost fuel and it is already on-site,” Vieth said, adding that the cost of producing and transporting LNG put it at a disadvantage.