Going to Bat for CAT

As John Drake strolls among the display vehicles at the Wisconsin Motor Carriers Association's annual expo, it doesn't take long to notice that everyone in the whole place knows him by name. Perhaps it's the years of industry experience—beginning as a driver and now, 29 years later, a fleet manager—or maybe it's simply his endearing personality that they appreciate: you won't meet a nicer guy.

When he makes his way back to the Caterpillar booth to rendezvous with Todd Sondag, a regional on-highway sales rep. for CAT, the two talk like old friends—likely because for the past year and a half, Drake and Sondag have been involved in a business relationship that began with "multi-daily phone calls" and four Peterbilt trucks equipped with '07-spec' Caterpillar test engines. And now that 2007 is ominously bearing down—breathing its clean exhaust gas down the backs of our necks—these two gentlemen sit down to explain to tremulous fleets everywhere that, maybe, 'DPF,' 'regen,' and 'ULSD' are not such dirty words after all.

Setting the Stage

Drake's fleet is Duplainville Transport, a division of Quad/Graphics, a large US-based commercial printing operation. Based in Sussex, WI (a rural suburb of Milwaukee), Quad runs 90 company trucks and nearly as many owner-operators. In the early winter of '04, with trucks on order from Peterbilt of Wisconsin, Drake was first confronted with the idea of a potential test run of Caterpillar engines. For Quad it was an experiment; for CAT, it was more of a lucky break to come across a fleet that was so willing and available.

"Knowing their specific operation, I sat down with John and we discussed: could he dedicate those trucks?" CAT's Sondag says. "And to our surprise, they in fact took four of them, and we were able to dedicate all four of those trucks. With their application in the printing business, the facilities that they ran to on a daily or weekly basis made them the best candidate."

According to Drake, "Aside from the six plants in Wisconsin, we have a plant in Oklahoma City, The Rock, Georgia, Martinsburg, West Virginia, and Saratoga Springs, New York." This meant the trucks would be subject to varying temperatures and terrains, and both long and short hauls, making the routes ideal for a comprehensive test.

"We chose the routes between our plants knowing we'd have consistent freight back and forth," he says. "The route to Saratoga Springs worked well in the winter months for obvious reasons—lots of snow and cold as we traveled through upstate New York. The Rock, Georgia, worked very well from a pulling power standpoint, as we have some mountains to go over heading South—Jellico and Mt. Eagle are the two largest—as well as warmer weather, which is actually hot and humid in the summer months. The Oklahoma route is probably the easy route, with rolling hills; the weather is not as bad as out East, but it's hot and dry in the summer." The test engines, then, got to experience nearly every variation in temperature, moisture, landscape, air pressure, and geography.

The Fuel Rule

In order to make this testing program as realistic and dedicated as possible, it was imperative that the trucks be run on the new mandated ultra low sulfur diesel (ULSD). This would prove to be, perhaps, the most difficult element to the overall program.

"I think the biggest challenge was finding fuel in the lane that these trucks were going to run," Drake says.

"It was a larger challenge than making and bringing an engine to market that even met emissions compliance," adds Sondag. "We did not allow their fleet to run 500 ppm fuel (on '07-spec trucks), regardless. We found lanes for these guys, and a fuel network to support these four engines. Then we actually had jobbers that would drop the fuel off, so they, in fact, had fuel every time they would stop. When we dedicated these trucks, we made sure they could make a turn out to New York and come back and fuel."

According to Sondag, the most critical part was not even the fuel stops themselves, but the cooperation of the drivers: "It all came from the dedication that these guys put into the program," he says. "We can only do so much. We put in our fuel stops, but it's up to his drivers getting in their minds 'Okay, I have to fuel here. I have to get out. I have to make sure this truck is dedicated.' It was a lot due to their part that we were able to test these motors."

15 PPM

So now that the fuel is widely available—and a mandate, not a choice—how does it figure into the cost and performance equation of '07?

"I had two bottles of it sitting on my desk and it was crystal clear. It looked like water," Drake says. Once it was in the trucks? "There was a while where I was a little disappointed, but we worked through it. Keep in mind, we had test engines. And now, fuel mileage-wise, looking back from where we started to where we're at today, we're doing fantastic."

Fuel mileage is perhaps the most critical element to cover, considering that various reports have suggested that the ULSD comes with a mild fuel economy penalty. According to Drake, it's an issue of accepting the change, and being careful not to judge too quickly.

"I don't even look at fuel mileage on our fleet until at least 80,000 miles," he says. "If we get a new truck, I might look at it just to see what it's doing, but to measure it, and to measure it against the rest of the fleet, I give it to 80,000 miles, because that's pretty much the break-in period on a diesel engine. A year ago? Yeah, there was some loss in fuel mileage, but the engines had to be broken in. There were a couple of injector upgrades, and some other things CAT had done, and the fuel mileage came right back up."

Drake goes on to advise other fuel cost conscious fleets, "Just don't be afraid of ultra low sulfur fuel. I was a little leery at first, but as time went on we got more and more used to it. And I'm telling everybody, 'hey, it's here to stay; we'd better get used to it.'"

He also emphasizes the danger in using ULSD as a scapegoat for poor fuel economy. "The cost of the fuel, and the miles per gallon—that's pretty much up to every fleet operator and how they negotiate their fuel prices, or the speed limits they set on their trucks," Drake says. "The speed setting is a huge factor in fuel mileage; I think down the road, everybody is going to realize that."

Quad has its own speed limit parameters to ensure consistent fuel economy returns. "Ours are set on 68 at cruise, and 70 on the foot pedal. We have a very lucrative incentive package for our drivers not to drive over 60," he says. "We have drivers that make an additional $5,000 per year by staying at 60 miles per hour. And that's half of what they save us as a fleet."

The CAT Challenge

The Caterpillar engine may be the most widely anticipated of the 2007 offerings, as the company is in a category of its own: when every other manufacturer endorsed the same technology for the new emissions standards—cooled exhaust gas recirculation (EGR)—CAT took a different approach with their clean gas induction (CGI) system. According to company literature, "Clean Gas Induction is a proprietary process that draws off a small amount of non-combustible gas after it has passed the engine's aftertreatment system. The gas is then cooled, blended with more incoming cool, clean air and returned to the combustion chamber. The non-combustible gas is a product of efficient combustion, and the gas is taken after it has passed through a new Diesel Particulate Filter. That means contaminants have been removed before the gas re-enters the intake system."

Caterpillar claims that their CGI system will maintain a similar fuel economy as previous model year engines, whereas their competitors will show a fuel economy penalty using cooled EGR. This is purportedly due to the fact that the intake manifold temperature in a CAT engine remains steady (120 degrees) whereas the 2007 EGR system has seen an increase since its 2004 counterpart.

CAT's calculated risk is appearing to have paid off, and they exude nothing but confidence when it comes to their proprietary system: "Bottom line is, we feel pretty good about the '07 engines," says Jason Phelps, on-highway customer communications, Caterpillar. "Caterpillar has been working on a field population of engines that are 2007-compliant for almost two years now. We have almost 12 million miles on our test engines. We've had very good success with those engines to date and so we feel very good about our testing program.

"We have been testing with ultra low sulfur fuel from the beginning with our field units, so the data that we're getting back on those engines is as close to 2007 as we can get. In fact, as far as the engines are concerned, it is 2007—because we've been using the fuel and the fluids, and driving them just like they will be come January 1st," Phelps says.

Maintaining the Change

Since preparedness is the name of the game for '07—especially after the debacle of 2002—training has become a huge part of the overall program for the implementation of these new engines. CAT has taken a proactive approach to making sure the new elements to the engines don't come as a maintenance shock to technicians or OEMs.

"We've been doing some training with our service organization, our CAT dealerships, and our OEM partner dealerships for several months now," Phelps says. "The first wave of the training was online, which basically covered the systems of ACERT technology, and the components that will be part of the 2007 solution: the CGI and the diesel particulate filter, as well as the CAT regeneration system, our method to generate heat to regenerate the diesel particulate filter."

The next step of the training program, "Train the Trainer," involves the dissemination of this training throughout regional outlets. "We feel pretty good about the training on the people side of things," Phelps says. "We also have systems to be sure the parts that may be required to repair—if necessary—2007 engines, will be in place."

Does field tester Quad/Graphics feel as confident as CAT? Unfortunately, part of the experience is slightly lacking—Drake's maintenance shop doesn't do much heavy duty engine work, although he does assent that his oil changes have remained steady. "We're at 30,000 mile intervals, and we plan on staying there," he says. "We just made the switch to the new CJ-4 oil. We don't see any significant additional maintenance."

As for CAT's role in the maintenance end of things (Quad's engine work is done at CAT, or Fabco—one of the largest CAT dealers in North America), things seem to be running smoothly as far as the comprehensive establishment of CAT service networks. Still, CAT involved Quad in every technical element of repair when possible. "Were we fortunate enough that we could get the trucks back to Milwaukee, 90 percent of the time? Yeah, we were," Sondag says. "Those guys got a very good firsthand look at these engines in terms of maintenance."

Drake concurs. "The additional training we've needed, we've gotten from CAT. We have an extremely good working relationship, and our fleet supervisor in our shop is very familiar with the '07 engines, and he works with Fabco really well on them and can explain what's happening. Again, we take it right through Fabco for maintenance. Todd and I have a lot of dialogue back and forth on what's happening, what the truck is doing. It's a true partnership," he says.

The Drive

Many of the engine manufacturers have been stressing issues relative to drivers in their marketing for 2007. Mostly it's been a matter of passive regeneration, and assuring operators that the process will not require any effort on the driver's part in order to initiate. Drake, instead, refers back to feedback he has been getting from his operators in terms of power-related issues.

"Any new engine has a little bit of a power loss, compared to an engine that is broken in, and we saw that same thing with these engines when they were new—we saw a little bit of a loss in power. They still pulled the hills," he says. "We run loaded to gross weight, probably 90 percent of the time. We test out at 80,000 (lbs.), and the drivers can pretty much tell, pulling Mt. Eagle; if the transmission downshifted once, they were happy. That's the point that we got to… We got them to where they needed to be. I want to say each one probably has 150,000 to 180,000 miles on them now, and they're going strong."

The Finish Line

So because of Quad's positive experience in their testing program with the new Caterpillar engine, Drake is the perfect candidate to sign the order form for new '07-spec trucks next year. How many will he purchase? "None," Drake says. "We positioned ourselves to buy zero trucks in '07."

There's the rub: projections suggest that many fleets have made similar plans. Is the solid feedback from testing programs coming a little too late? Drake's fleet has been masterminding their '07 purchasing decisions for the past several years.

"We started back before the first round of emissions standards for '02," he explains. "We had a large truck buy in '98-'99, and what we tried to do is, versus having a large truck buy every couple of years, we spread it out. So we took some trucks and ran them longer; we got rid of some trucks a bit earlier—tried to level the field so we could buy X number of trucks per year. That's how we positioned ourselves here, so we started way back long ago." For Drake, the issue seems to be more about cost than the capabilities of these new engines: "Before we took delivery of the test trucks, we decided to move our plans up to complete purchases in 2006 due to the cost increases related to 2007 trucks."

So it seems that perhaps, no matter how swiftly the '07 fears are assuaged, engine manufacturers are up against years of the kinds of preparations that will precipitate their sales slumps. CAT, however, does not seem much dissuaded.

"It's somebody like John, and the success he's had with these engines, that is helping us continue to move in that direction—that our engines are, in fact, what we claim them to be," Sondag says. "We use the success that we had with Quad/Graphics, a bellwether fleet in Wisconsin, to take the word out onto the street, to encourage others in '07 to buy these engines. We're using the success we're having in the field to promote that sale in the future."

And for Quad, despite the fact that they weren't planning to purchase even when they took on the new engines for testing, it was all about improving their knowledge of the upcoming products most critical to the market. "We have done CAT testing a couple times in the past, and helping CAT out with testing also lets us learn about the new engines and technologies," Drake says. "It was a good fit for us at Quad. When we set out to do something, we want to test so we can benefit; other people can benefit—to find out what we needed to find out, to take us into the future. Because that's our future sitting out there."