NORWOOD, Mass.--The Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt may have captured consumers' imagination, but sales of these alternative-fuel cars are tiny in the scheme of total auto sales. Fleet operators are still experimenting with alternative powertrains but in some respects they are more promising customers, argue fleet managers and auto industry analysts. Fleet operators can be more willing to invest in alternative fuels because, as big fuel users, they can benefit from lower fuel costs.
Seen here are some of the fleet vehicles at the AltWheels Fleet Day here. In front is a gas-electric Chevy Volt and General Motors' natural-gas-powered van behind it. Behind that is a hybrid utility truck.
Frito Lay is testing all-electric trucks, such as this one on the right, and natural-gas-powered long-haul trucks. The company got into alternative fuels with its fleets because it had a corporate goal of reducing oil imports and greenhouse gas emissions. Electric transportation has far cheaper fuel costs, but there are limits in the range of today's batteries. Natural-gas fuel costs are lower, too, though costs vary substantially in different parts of the country. Natural gas, though, has comparable driving range as diesel tractors with far lower emissions. Behind the truck cab, you can see where the natural-gas tanks are stored. The dearth of fueling stations is still a barrier to natural gas for long-haul vehicles.
The town of Framingham put this truck into service about a year ago for inspecting sewer lines for preventive maintenance. The fuel savings were dramatic: the previous diesel truck got about 4 or 5 miles per gallon, whereas this one gets about 11 miles per gallon in stop-and-go driving and over 15 miles per gallon on the highway. The battery can be charged overnight from a wall charger or charged by the diesel engine during operation.
Another all-electric delivery truck ready for service. FedEx is one of the companies testing out a small number of these electric trucks from Navistar for deliveries in a few cities including four in Los Angeles. The fuel costs are about one third of a conventional truck, but the electric trucks cost three to four times the cost of a regular diesel truck, according to FedEx. The limited range and the regenerative braking from frequent stops make them well suited for cities, fleet operators say.
One of the few production natural-gas cars on the road is the Honda Civic GX, which is being renamed the Civic Natural Gas sedan in 2012, according to a company representative. The 2011 model gets between 24 and 36 miles to the gallon and has cleaner air emissions than burning gasoline. Natural gas is also a domestic fuel. The big challenge with natural gas is the lack of fueling infrastructure, though some enthusiasts note that it's possible to have a natural-gas compressor installed in homes.