Got a chance to test drive some natural gas-fired trucks this week at a customer event hosted by Peterbilt Motors Co. at the Texas Motor Speedway (and NO, we weren’t racing them; we were neither on the main track nor up high in the corners, thank you very much).
Setting aside the cost, maintenance, and refueling issues for trucks powered by natural gas, I wanted to get a feeling of the driving experience.
Specifically: Would a truck operating on natural gas handle or sound different compared to one running on diesel?
In a word: No. And you can see (and hear) for yourself below, based on my own (albeit short) test drive experience.
Drivers and fleets, of course, bring a lot of other worries to the table when it comes to natural gas. Probably the biggest one revolves around its flammability. Indeed, more than one driver I’ve spoken to in the past expressed concern that lighting and smoking a cigarette around natural gas-powered vehicles could trigger an explosion if even a small amount of fuel leaked out.
In reality, though, natural gas is in some ways safer than diesel fuel. To ignite, natural gas needs first to be exposed to a flame source at or exceeding 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit (thus cigarettes don’t qualify, nor do Bic lighters) AND a natural-gas-to-air mixture between 5% and 15%.
Of course, being gaseous, natural gas will most likely just dissipate into the air before anything happens. By contrast, being a liquid, diesel fuel can pool on the ground around flame sources, significantly heightening the risk of ignition.
[As an aside, Westport Innovation’s Kelly Mills provides an overview of how the company’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) fueled 15-liter engine works; an engine that runs on a mixture of 95% LNG and 5% diesel.]
OEMs like Peterbilt are also offering a wider variety of natural gas truck options, too, configuring everything from dump trucks to big Class 8 highway sleeper tractors to run on either the compressed (CNG) or liquefied (LNG) form of the gaseous fuel.
Of course, whether fleets in any of those applications decide to switch over to natural gas is the big unanswered question. One certainty in this discussion, however, is that OEMs and a myriad of suppliers are lining up all the pieces of the natural gas puzzle for fleets – trucks, training, refueling locations, etc. – to help fleets that decide to change over to natural gas as smooth as possible.
And if diesel fuel costs keep rising the way we’re doing, more and more fleets will begin to contemplate such a switch, I am sure.