Delivering Those Fritos: Clean-Burning Natural Gas Trucks

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Aug 01, 2016

Fritos, Cheetos and Lay's potato chips, as most of us snack hounds are well aware, are fairly lightweight. Bags of these between-meal treats, by volume, isn’t weighting down the delivery truck springs all that much. That’s one reason the company has been able to effectively experiment with alternative delivery power, including hybrids and fully electric battery trucks. And don’t forget natural gas!

Fritos and Cheetos now 50% less likely to give you (greenhouse) gas. (Frito-Lay photo)
Fritos and Cheetos now 50% less likely to give you (greenhouse) gas. (Frito-Lay photo)

In a Car Talk exclusive, we’re told that Frito-Lay, a division of PepsiCo, is doubling down on compressed natural gas (CNG). According to Michael O’Connell, senior director of supply chain for Frito-Lay North America, it’s now buying 50-50 diesel and CNG trucks.

The company’s confidence is based on experience, O’Connell said. In the past five years, Frito CNG trucks have traveled more than 100 million miles, with a 23-percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions from their diesel equivalents. The company CNG fleet has gone from 16 in 2011 to more than 500 in 2016. Frito also has many trucks powered by propane, the same stuff that’s in your backyard grill—with the advantage of being liquid at near room temperature.

The biggest challenge for CNG, even when prices for it were $2 a gallon equivalent less than diesel, has been a lack of fueling stations. That’s still an issue, but O’Connell says the company now is the major customer of 16 strategically located CNG stations around the country. Frito operates 28 “traffic center” distribution sites for its snack foods, and the trucks can reach them easily.

For semis, liquified natural gas is the long-range fuel. (Frito-Lay photo)
For semis, liquified natural gas is the long-range fuel. (Frito-Lay photo)

There are 941 public CNG refueling stations in the U.S., according to the Alternative Fuels Data Center, and it sounds like a lot until you realize there’s more than 150,000 gas stations (including convenience stores that sell fuel). If it wasn’t for this problem, CNG (and a related useful product, propane) might have had a breakthrough because of the big price advantage. As it is, many fleets had started converting to CNG and, for longer-haul trucks, liquefied natural gas (LNG) because it offers more range.

The LNG semi trucks have about the same range as diesels, 600 miles. That’s a built-in advantage over battery box trucks, which are used mostly for local deliveries.
O’Connell admits that that fuel prices tend to be volatile, and are likely to stay that way. He argues, though, that it’s actually diesel prices that have been all over the place. “CNG is pretty consistent,” he said.

Here’s a relevant statistic: With CNG, 80 percent of the cost is in delivery, so the actual cost of the fuel isn’t as significant as it at first appears. With diesel, it’s reversed: 80 percent is in the actual cost of a barrel of oil, so fuel prices matter more. In any case, Frito-Lay is making a significant bet that natural gas will remain a financially viable fuel with a side benefit in reducing greenhouse gas.

CNG Now sees a big natural gas opportunity for semis, since they “are one of the largest consumers of foreign oil in the United States…Major manufacturers such as Kenworth and Sterling offer natural gas-powered trucks today, and other manufacturers are planning to follow their lead.” The group claims that LNG semis operate with the same horsepower and performance as diesels.

What about long-haul delivery trucks with fuel cells? Frito-Lay doesn’t have any, but they could be practical—if operators are willing to build their own $1 to $2 million hydrogen fueling stations. Right now, in the U.S., only California has a network of refueling stations. Here's a video look at an LNG semi moving those Lay's potato chips:


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