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PERC pushes ahead with efforts to grow the US Autogas market

Michael Taylor, Director, Autogas Business Development at the Propane Education & Research Council in the United States reviews current Autogas market developments and PERC’s ongoing activities to encourage switching to the fuel.

The US market for propane Autogas has been very active in 2013, with the fuel garnering better name recognition and new and returning fleet customers putting more vehicles on the road.

Fleet managers are aggressively adding alternative-fuel vehicles to their fleets, including Autogas-powered vehicles, primarily because of high gasoline and diesel costs as well as from a desire to lower emissions.

The Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) is continuing its partnership approach to grow the US Autogas market. This means investing in and guiding the research and development of engines and other technology. It also means contributing to the successful commercialisation of the products that are brought to market.

PERC works with many partners along the development and commercialisation pipeline. This year, companies like Blue Bird, Freightliner Custom Chassis Corp. (FCCC), Roush CleanTech, CleanFuel USA and Thomas Built Buses have come to fore by bringing new products onto the market.

FCCC is in the midst of launching the S2G bobtail truck – the truck used to deliver fuel to residential and commercial customers across the United States (see the photo below). The US market for LP Gas remains heavily focused on space heating, water heating, power generation and industrial applications. The new S2G truck allows propane retailers to use LP Gas in their operations – saving both money for their business and showing their customers that they too can use LP Gas to power their vehicles. The industry has been following this development closely and advance orders are in hand.  The bobtails should be in use this winter. The long-term investment in the S2G also looks to pay off as the chassis can be used for LP Gas cylinder delivery trucks and for crane trucks, giving FCCC another sales point when meeting with marketers. FCCC partnered with Powertrain Integration, a GM supplier, and CleanFuel USA on the development of the S2G.

The S2G LP Gas chassis features an 8-litre, dedicated factory-installed engine producing 350 horsepower and 550 pound feet of torque. It is certified for use across North America in applications up to 33 000 lbs gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR).

Autogas has become an important fuel for the school bus market. Major victories include Blue Bird’s delivery of 435 Autogas Vision buses for the Omaha and Millard, Nebraska, school districts, which will begin running this fall, and the expansion by the school districts of Portland, Oregon, and Seattle of their use of Autogas-fuelled buses. And this spring, Georgia, the home of Blue Bird, played host to the first-ever Georgia Road-eo – a safety competition for school bus drivers, which featured Autogas buses. Two winners went on to a national championship. While largely symbolic, the event makes clear that Autogas is no longer simply an alternative: it is already an established fuel in the school bus market.

Part of this success can be attributed to the adoption of Autogas buses by two of the major school bus fleet contractors in North America. First Student says it is the largest provider of student transportation, partnering with 1 400 school districts, while Student Transportation claims the number three spot, working with more than 200 districts. Both are operating Autogas buses across their markets.

These markets also have more to choose from as original equipment manufacturers get into the game. Thomas Built Buses launched this year the Minotour Type A school bus with an Autogas option. The Minotour seats up to 30, and the Autogas model comes with a GM 6-litre, 332-horsepower, fully integrated liquid propane injection system. The bus offers an estimated maximum range of 315 miles with 14 200 lbs GVWR.

Thomas Built also launched the Saf-T-Liner C2 Autogas-fuelled school bus with seating for up to 81 passengers and a 33 000 GVWR. The 8-litre V-8 engine from Powertrain Integration is fuelled with a liquid propane injection system from CleanFuel USA. The 350-horsepower engine has an estimated 300 mile range.

PERC has stepped up its Autogas marketing, updating much of its promotional material with case studies, photos and other collateral items. And PERC has sponsored a number of influential trade shows for both the Autogas industry and the fleet market, displaying and offering ride-and-drives of the S2G and other vehicles brought to market through PERC’s investment in their research and development.

PERC was a principal sponsor of the 2013 Alternative Clean Transportation Expo in Washington, D.C. – possibly the most influential show in North America for fleet managers interested in alternative fuels.  The ACT Expo draws about 3,000 fleet leaders and this year marked the first time it had been held on the East Coast. PERC held a pre-conference seminar that generated a standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 managers; Roy Willis, PERC president and CEO, later took part in a plenary session during the ACT Expo with leaders from natural gas, electricity and diesel organisations.

In addition to the new dedicated Autogas vehicles entering the market, the United States continues to see robust growth in aftermarket bi-fuelling (conversions of existing conventionally fuelled vehicles to run on Autogas).  Led by Alliance Autogas (with Prins equipment) and Icom North America (with JTG liquid propane injection system), the US market expects to see continued growth in aftermarket adoption of Autogas as the  prices and operating expenses of using gasoline and diesel remain high.

To learn more about Autogas market developments in the United States and PERC activities, please do not hesitate to contact Michael at Michael.Taylor@propane.com