Propane Bobtail Hits Production Milestone

S2G Bobtail 1
June 16 marked a major milestone for the propane industry as the Freightliner Custom Chassis Corp. (FCCC; Gaffney, S.C.) S2G propane-fueled bobtail went into full production. FCCC is taking orders now, and about 25 trucks had been delivered as of late June. Initial reviews have been positive, but as is the case with most products, the process has not been glitch-free. The Burton, Mich. location of AmeriGas, which is using the truck on a pilot project basis, has given the truck high marks, although it experienced some low-idling problems with the bobtail early on. FCCC, however, fixed that problem quickly, said AmeriGas area director Mike George.

He told BPN the reduced cost of operation has been the truck’s biggest advantage. That is especially the case in the summer months when the price of propane is lower.

“You’re looking at almost a 50%-per-gallon difference to operate the truck,” George stated. “That’s the big ‘wow’ factor. It’s a cleaner-burning product, so I don’t expect to have as high maintenance costs with the vehicle.”

A participant at a ride and drive during last year’s National Truck Equipment Association Work Truck Show commented, “Quiet, really quiet. I’m really pleasantly surprised. It drives like a car. Minimum cab noise. You wouldn’t even know you’re driving a truck.”

Although some marketers were still apprehensive about ordering at this early stage and were taking a “wait-and-see” attitude, the many positive comments must be gratifying for all the companies involved with putting together the bobtail. FCCC built the vehicle chassis, Powertrain Integration (Madison Heights, Mich.) produced the engine, and CleanFUEL USA (Georgetown, Texas) designed the fuel tank system assembly and the fuel rail system assembly.S2G Bobtail 2-5

It might seem like it has been a long road to get to this point, but Bryan Henke of FCCC notes that the process has not been much different than that of any original equipment manufacturer (OEM) product. OEMs typically start manufacturing products by unveiling pilot units to test how they will run through the production line. That took place about a year ago for the S2G. Then comes “pre-series,” a limited production run to make sure the production process is working as planned. That took place around March of this year.

Now that the product is in full production, Henke says FCCC as of late June had several hundred orders, which were spread fairly evenly around the country. Propane marketers can order the bobtail from any of about 600 U.S. FCCC dealers.

The S2G will not just be available as a bobtail, however. Production is underway now for the bobtail, but the unit will go into production around the first quarter of 2015 for crane truck and box truck configurations as well. The chassis is also made for the Thomas Built Bus Co., and the school bus chassis using the same propane fueling system is also in full production.

Also like any OEM project, the S2G went through extensive testing to get to this point. FCCC built the pre-series units specifically for in-field testing. The company put the vehicle through several hundred thousand miles of durability testing, altitude testing on the rugged terrain of the Rocky Mountrains, including Pikes Peak, in Colorado, and cold start testing in –30ºF temperatures and colder in Bemidji, Minn.

“This is very typical of how we want to validate a vehicle’s design,” Henke explained.

Dealer buy-in is also important in any OEM product release, and Henke stressed that the FCCC dealers understand the features of the bobtail. They know alternative fuels because the company has been involved with natural gas products. The company showed the vehicle at an FCCC event in Wisconsin in June, and gatherings like that have achieved good results. A recent Southern Connecticut FCCC S2G event resulted in the sale of several trucks.

“The FCCC dealers are energized,” he said. “They’re seeing results with the trucks and getting more engaged with it.”

It’s been a long road since General Motors phased out its 8.1L engine from the medium-duty truck market at the end of 2009. Tucker Perkins, chief business development officer of the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC), recalled that the phase-out took place during the heart of the U.S. financial crisis that resulted in the government’s bailout of GM. The automaker had a buyer for its medium-duty truck division, but the deal fell through. Perkins, who was with CleanFUEL USA at the time, described GM’s medium-duty truck program as “successful by any stretch of the imagination.” Sales of the propane version of the 8.1L were just beginning to grow, and many users were satisfied with the propane-fueled bobtail. After GM’s exit from that market, PERC, CleanFUEL USA, and Blue Bird Bus bought GM’s remaining inventory of 8.1L engines to continue the Blue Bird propane school bus program.

CleanFUEL USA and Powertrain Integration immediately began working on a brand new engine, which is an 8.0L to replace the 8.1L and features more horsepower, torque, and fuel efficiency along with lower emissions. The engine has gone through various changes since the original pilot version.

“It’s amazing how the vehicle integration from the fuel system to the engine itself, to noise, to air intake, to just about everything, has evolved over the past several years,” Henke noted. “If you would have looked at the pilot unit we did several years ago and what we have today, there are significant changes, because we just weren’t satisfied with the status quo.”

The ability to start the vehicle in extreme cold weather was a big area of focus for the S2G. According to Henke, cold-start was an issue for liquid injection systems when he worked for a company that sold vaporized systems. But he and his team were pleasantly surprised when they heard that the S2G had no trouble starting in –30°F and colder temperatures in Bemidji.

“I thought, really, we’re getting cold-start without a block heater? We are. That’s unheard of,” Henke stated.

The S2G team also paid close attention to noise. The group worked to make sure the vehicle would be quiet for the driver and for residential customers’ neighbors.

S2G-Bobtail-for-photos-3“It wasn’t just making sure it ran right,” Henke said. “Propane marketers remember the past. They have great memories. We certainly did not want to have issues that these guys had in the past 10 to 20 years ago.”

Along with stringent testing in areas such as noise, starting, and cooling, additional durability testing involved running the vehicle continuously around the clock. That testing revealed some mostly minor mechanical issues that the team addressed. In mid-December, Perkins told BPN that the team resolved a few technical issues in areas such as engine calibration and oil leaks.

“In some cases they were minor nuisances in our opinion, but not acceptable,” Henke noted. “Maybe for some other applications, a little leak here or there or a little noise rattle here or there after 60,000 or 100,000 miles might be acceptable, but it really wasn’t to us. So we wanted to make sure that we shook this vehicle down. I think we’ve accomplished that.”

Meanwhile, FCCC is working on marketing the product to potential users and educating its own dealers. “We’re letting FCCC dealers know the product is in full production, because they’ve been waiting quite a long time,” Henke explained. The company will hold a special event in Gaffney in late summer so potential buyers can get hands-on experience with the truck.

Many marketers are ready now. Trevor Beaudry, propane manager for Beaudry Oil (Elk River, Minn.), said his company has one S2G on order and was set to receive it in August or September.

“We decided to order one for the fuel savings and to support propane for motor fuel use,” Beaudry said. “We think if it is successful then there will be opportunity for the vehicle in different industries.”

McMahon’s Bottle Gas (Dayton, Ohio) has not ordered the S2G yet, but plans on doing so next year. “We really want a propane bobtail, but we wanted to give them a year to work out the bugs,” said Brian Buschur of McMahons.

Other marketers are on the fence. “We have considered ordering one, but were not sure how long we would have to wait to get it,” said Daren Parker of Parker Gas Co. (Newton Grove, N.C.). “I am still not sure when the first ones will be available. I have not test driven one. I obviously would like to see this thing work out, but am kind of skeptical about being the guinea pig.”

The truck won’t be for everyone, of course. Kevin Lechner of Lechner’s Propane (East Branch, N.Y.) test drove the vehicle at a recent Ray Murray Inc. open house in Lee, Mass. Although he said using a propane-fueled bobtail would lower his operating costs, he would not order one because his location is in a mountainous area.

“The automatic transmission is constantly shifting, so in my location, it’s not so much of a ‘pro’ for me,” said Lechner, addressing the pros and cons. He now prefers diesel-fueled bobtails with standard transmissions because they can be more easily fitted with a “Jake brake” that uses engine compression to slow down the vehicle so the driver does not have to pump the brakes as much while traveling downhill.

Gary France of France Propane (Schofield, Wisc.), past chair of the National Propane Gas Association, drove the bobtail at the Work Truck Show and also at the joint Georgia/South Carolina Propane Gas Association convention in July, 2013. He has two main concerns: the price and the transmission. He wonders why the vehicle is priced about $12,000 more than a comparable diesel version, and he has also heard concerns from truck builders about the S2G’s Allison transmission.

“When your bulk truck manufacturer is skeptical, it kind of makes you not feel real comfortable, either,” France said.

He believes that propane marketers must have confidence in their own fuel as a delivery fuel and that they need to get the propane-fueled bobtail out in the field. “It’s hard to expect the customer to buy or use autogas if we’re not using it, and I think right now there’s a little reluctance on some of the marketers as to why they have to pay such a premium for that truck.”

He does feel the truck has “a good solid chassis.” But the price tag and transmission will be his main concerns until he sees them out in the field in real-world conditions. His test drives took place with an empty barrel, and he contends that a truck is best judged with a full barrel.

On the plus side, another ride and drive participant at the Work Truck Show said the vehicle had “great visibility and it turns nice and tight.” Another, whose current fleet includes a 2012 Freightliner with a Cummins diesel, commented that the S2G had just as much power.

Lechner said that although he would not be able to use the truck, the S2G’s turning radius and visibility were two positives. “If you’re in a city environment with a tight residential area, the turning radius is wonderful.”
    —Daryl Lubinsky