Utility Vehicles: Sustainability Affects Product Specification
Product Focus: Utility Vehicles
What can't utility vehicles do? After all, the versatile vehicles have become workhorses of many grounds departments in large part because they can help crews perform a long list of tasks, from mowing and plowing to grading to hauling.
One thing is certain: Grounds managers will continue looking for the limits of utility vehicle performance and versatility because as financial resources become more precious, the vehicles' versatility will become even more important to managers and their departments. Among the biggest challenges for manufacturers is trying to stand out among the growing array of utility vehicles on the market.
"Utility vehicles are still relatively young," says Dan Muramoto, product manager for utility vehicles and subcompact tractors with Kubota Tractor Corp. "Most manufacturers are on their first or maybe second generation of products." Given this situation, managers can expect utility vehicles to evolve and diversify gradually as manufacturers seek to build their brands.
One issue in particular — environmental responsibility — is transforming grounds management in institutional and commercial facilities. As a result, it is affecting the array of features and functions that manufacturers are incorporating into the latest generation of utility vehicles.
Rise of Sustainability
Sustainability "has affected (utility-vehicle specification) dramatically," says Scott Breckley, vice president of sales and marketing with Columbia ParCar Corp. "More institutions and users are thinking green and looking for ways to improve sustainability.
"As they run out of the obvious areas to change, utility vehicles are now getting looked at. In particular, there has been an increasing awareness of the benefits of electric-powered vehicles, that they now have the range and power needed to do the vast majority of tasks called for by utility vehicle users."
Some markets have shown particular interest in electric vehicles.
"A lot of schools are taking a closer look at these vehicles," says Kevin Lund, John Deere's product line marketing manager for utility vehicles, adding they meet many districts' needs "because workers never get too far from a charging station."
Manufacturers believe once more managers weigh the benefits and limitations of electric-powered vehicles, they will develop more favorable impressions.
"Hybrid-electric and battery-electric will shape the future of utility vehicles," says Brian Melka, director of product management with Jacobsen. "Standard mechanical- and hydraulic-power systems will become a thing of the past. As the technology continues to progress with electric systems, people will begin to wonder why we didn't develop one sooner."
But manufacturers know many managers remain skeptical of electric-powered vehicles.
"Unfortunately, the perceptions remain that electric vehicles aren't powerful enough, don't carry enough, or don't last long enough on a single charge," Breckley says. "All of these assumptions are no longer valid in the vast majority of applications. There are still many places for internal-combustion-powered vehicles, but they are in the minority."
One such place might be in projects requiring operators to haul heavy loads.
"Longer term, technologies like hybrid-electric and battery-electric machines for heavy-duty utility vehicles will begin to take off," Melka says. "For heavy-duty applications, however, the (electric) technology is not yet available at a reasonably offsetting price point."
Lund points out another potential challenge related to electric vehicles: proper training for operators and mechanics. With traditional, non-electric vehicles, "if you have a problem, a mechanic can figure it out," he says. "With electric vehicles, you can have a hard time figuring out what's wrong. You've got to have some expertise with the vehicle."
Another issue managers should pay close attention to is the evolution of battery technology. Existing batteries limit utility vehicles' run time and range. But advances in lithium ion technology bring promise that future batteries will be lighter and smaller and, therefore, better suited for use in utility vehicles.
"As we see more lithium ion production, that'll be the big change," Lund says. "Once we see battery technology with higher densities of power, that will free up some opportunities for utility vehicles."