An American start-up manufacturer has begun using Chinese-made glider kits for a line of medium- and heavy-duty alternative-fueled trucks for North America. It could be the first employment of Chinese commercial vehicles in the U.S., but they are only a means to an end for the new firm, Alkane Truck Co.
Alkane-brand cabover trucks will be based on Daimler Foton engineless gliders that are being shipped to the Port of Charleston, S.C., and then to a nearby “integration” plant. There workers will install propane and natural gas engines and fuel systems, and automatic or automated manual transmissions, said Steve Rayborn, the firm‘s national sales director.
He is one of a small team of people who founded the company in Myrtle Beach, S.C., about four years ago, and has been planning the products and how to market them. The low cost of alternative fuels prompted the decision to offer only propane and natural gas-powered trucks.
“We will be a niche marketer, and we don’t need to sell even 10,000 trucks a year to be a success,” Rayborn said. American and Canadian dealers representing 120 locations have signed memoranda of understanding contingent on their inspection of and satisfaction with production trucks.
He and Bob Smith, the company’s CEO, have varied business backgrounds but no experience in truck manufacturing, Rayborn said. They have hired experts to manage engineering, the acquisition of name-brand domestic components needed for the trucks, and the production of them.
Alkane will field P-33 Class 7 trucks using Power Solutions International 8.8-liter V-8 engines with propane fuel systems from Bi-Phase Technologies, an arm of Schwan’s Food Service, a user of propane since the 1970s. Allison 2000 and 3000 series automatic transmissions will send power to rear axles, which are included in the Foton gliders.
Also in the catalog is a P-26 model, which would be offered to those who wish to avoid CDL requirements for operators. It would be a P-33 with lower rated axles and other chassis equipment, and would stay at the heavy end of Class 6.
A yet unnamed Class 8 model will use the Cummins ISX12 G natural gas engine and an Eaton UltraShift automated gearbox. A prototype has a liquefied natural gas system, but Alkane might start production with compressed natural gas systems because more fleets have begun using it and more CNG stations now exist.
For medium-duty models, “We chose propane autogas because it’s the most-used alternative fuel in the world, and has the most filling stations in the U.S. – 2,700,” he said. “We can turn customers onto a variety of propane marketers, like Ferrellgas and Suburban, and they will put in a tank free and then wholesale the propane to the fleet.”
Triad Services Group of suburban Detroit assisted in designing the trucks and is managing the integration and assembly operations for the South Carolina plant. It is now being staffed and Rayborn expects that 60 employees will work there. Full production should begin in 60 to 90 days.
Part of the work at the plant will be to change the Chinese cabs’ window glass and lighting fixtures because they do not meet American performance standards, Rayborn said. They will be replaced with domestic products.
Alkane trucks will be displayed at the major truck shows early next year. Niche markets for the trucks include propane, beverage and snack delivery, Rayborn said. He has made contacts with major private fleets whose managers are interested in or already using alternative fuels.
“What we have found is that there is no one fuel, so we have to be ready to change,” he said. “We can do that quickly because we’re a small group of businessmen, not a big, bureaucratic corporation.” In addition to him and Smith, the company’s website (www.alkanetruckcompany.com) lists two other executives plus communications specialists.
The team picked Alkane as the company’s name because it’s in the Periodic Table of the Elements, where it comprises gaseous fuels, including propane and natural gas.