Caterpillar Inc. is getting into the hybrid vehicle business. Except these won't be vehicles you'll see on the highway. The company Tuesday officially launched its line of Diesel-electric hybrid bulldozers - the D7E - that it says will improve fuel efficiency 30 percent or more while not skimping on the power its customers expect from Caterpillar equipment.

Caterpillar Inc. is getting into the hybrid vehicle business. Except these won't be vehicles you'll see on the highway.


The company Tuesday officially launched its line of Diesel-electric hybrid bulldozers - the D7E - that it says will improve fuel efficiency 30 percent or more while not skimping on the power its customers expect from Caterpillar equipment.


The launch came at Caterpillar's demonstration center in Edwards, with trade media and several of its biggest customers on hand to see demonstrations of that power.


Caterpillar said the D7E, a product 10 years in the making, is the first tractor in the world with an electric drive system. The electric drive tractors were first introduced to the public during ConExpo 2008 in Las Vegas more than a year ago.


While there are many test D7E tractors running today - including 18 of them placed with customers to get feedback - Caterpillar will begin production in October at its track-type tractor plants in East Peoria. It expects the machine to reach full production by the middle of 2010, said David Nicoll, commercial manager of tractor products in the company's Earthmoving Division.


Customers on hand who have been using the machines - including one company with more than 1,600 hours on the machine - lauded the D7E as reliable, comfortable and more efficient while still capable of delivering the power they need for different applications.


"We're very excited about the power it has, the visibility from the cab, the maneuverability - all of it," said Curtis Valencia of Crossfire Construction LLC in Colorado. The company mostly uses the D7E for building, reclamation and cleanup work in oil fields.


Those sentiments were echoed by Dale Hill, director of mine operations for Dolet Hills Lignite Co. in Mansfield, La., whose company has been running the machine 24 hours a day and has topped 1,600 hours of operation with no problems.


Dan Plote, owner of Plote Construction Inc. in Hoffman Estates, said he parked the larger, more powerful Caterpillar D8 bulldozer while testing the D7E and has found the new machine "is more than keeping up, pound for pound. And it's 30 percent more fuel efficient."


The comments from customers included urging that Caterpillar find a way to denote on the machines that they are a hybrid. The users said that would help with the public image of big machines. The company made no promises.


Nicoll did say Caterpillar has been collecting the thoughts of users and already has made several modifications to the D7E to keep it user friendly.


More than 50,000 machine and lab hours have been spent to date on the machine that engineering manager Mike Betz said is a completely Caterpillar design with more than 100 patents granted or pending.


While Caterpillar declined to give prices for its machines during the event, the company said the D7E cost about 20 percent more than the D7R. However, Nicoll said, Caterpillar believes that extra cost will be recouped in improved efficiency within 2 1/2 years.


The machine, he added, uses 10 percent to 30 percent less fuel per hour of operation, and thus can move an average of 25 percent more material per gallon of fuel than the D7R.


Paul Gordon can be reached at (309) 686-3288 or pgordon@pjstar.com.


D7E bulldozer


Caterpillar Inc. launched the D7E bulldozer Tuesday, the first Diesel-electric hybrid tractor of its class. The machine, which will go into production in East Peoria in October, is expected to:


--Improve fuel efficiency by up to 30 percent over comparably sized machines such as the D7R.


--Reduce service costs by 25 percent or more and reduce lifetime operating costs by 10 percent.


--Greatly reduce emissions (the machine already has received U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recognition) and noise levels.


--Offer improved maneuverability while delivering as much power.


Caterpillar Inc.