The Big Rigs Go Hybrid

A new truck system called the hydraulic hybrid shows great promise. Its prime developer? Surprise: the EPA

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Courtesy of Eaton

Ann Arbor, Mich., Mayor John Hieftje likes to brag about his city's green credentials. The streets glow with high-efficiency LED lamps. Ann Arbor draws an impressive 20% of its power from clean sources like hydro, wind and biogas. The mayor bikes to work; the buses are hybrids.

The latest gadget to hit Ann Arbor's green streets? Four highly unusual recycling trucks. These behemoths are powered in part by a hydraulic-hybrid system. The energy from deceleration is stored in a pressurized tank called an accumulator, which is full of hydraulic fluid and nitrogen. When the truck starts moving, pressure released from the tank drives the wheels, saving the diesel engine from having to kick in. The system is great for stop-and-go driving. Annual fuel savings should reach 1,000 gal. (3,800 L) of diesel per truck per year, about a 30% improvement over traditional haulers. Greenhouse-gas emissions are reduced 20% or more. Also, the trucks should need only one expensive brake job a year, not four. The technology is pricey — a $40,000 premium on top of the $200,000 price tag for each truck — but the extra cost should take only two to three years to recoup.

Cover your eyes if you hate to read about government-funded projects, because hybrid hydraulic has federal hands all over it. A Department of Energy program called Clean Cities helped underwrite the trucks' hybrid systems. A government-industry partnership, Clean Cities was created to reduce the nation's oil dependence and will dispense about $300 million in grants to 25 projects this year. Ann Arbor will tap the fund to buy hybrid haulers and other sustainable vehicles as well as the fueling infrastructure to support them.

Much of the basic technology for the hydraulic hybrid was developed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In 2001, Eaton, a Cleveland power-train maker with development labs in Michigan, formed a partnership with the EPA to commercialize the technology. Since then, UPS, the U.S. Army and others have joined in to boost hydraulic-hybrid systems.

In Ann Arbor's case, a grass-roots nonprofit in Ypsilanti, Mich., called the Clean Energy Coalition (CEC) brought together city leaders and automotive executives from Eaton, Parker Hannifin and Peterbilt, makers of the hybrid trucks. Says CEC director Sean Reed: "Hybrid and other advanced vehicle technology is starting to go to California. We want to show the world that these jobs belong in Michigan."

Government handouts, even to sustain jobs, don't sit well with everyone. Says Jerry Taylor, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute: "If this technology makes economic sense, it's unclear why the federal government is paying to underwrite state and local investments." True enough, but the technology would not exist today if the EPA didn't develop it. Dimitri Kazarinoff, vice president of Eaton's Hybrid Power Systems, says he wouldn't want the government subsidies to dry up, but "the money is not essential to our business model." Eaton just started production on the hydraulic-hybrid system, which is installed in Peterbilt trucks. Most of the trucks will be sold to private companies without subsidies. "The customers see the possible return on investment," Kazarinoff adds. The market is potentially vast, with some 70,000 recycling and garbage trucks roaming America's streets that will eventually need to be replaced.

As Mayor Hieftje puts it, "We can buy some made-in-the-U.S. technology, show that it works and clean our air at the same time. What's wrong with that?" Nothing — especially if the money creates some sorely needed, high-paying jobs in Michigan.