Electric Van and Truck Fleets Key to Success of Electric Car Industry

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Sure we spend a lot of time here writing about the Nissan LEAF, the Chevy Volt, Tesla and developments in the passenger electric car industry, but that doesn’t mean we think any less of electric vans and trucks. In fact, the stop-and-go nature of delivery driving combined with the standard practice of parking fleet vehicles on company property nightly make fleet deployment of electric trucks and vans one of the easiest and most cost-effective ways to electrify large portions of our transportation infrastructure.

But will these utility EV makers still be around after the grant money fades and the tax incentives subside? If battery costs continue to fall and technology continues to improve, all signs point to a healthy future for electric vans and trucks, particularly in the context of fleet ownership.

In the last year or so, three electric truck manufacturers in the U.S. — Navistar, Smith Electric Vehicles, and a joint effort between Ford Motor Co. and Canada’s Azure Dynamics — have stepped in to fill that market niche, thanks in no small part to the U.S. Government.

In August 2009, Navistar was awarded a $39.2 million grant as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to develop and deploy electric trucks in the U.S.

Known mostly for its leadership with brands like International trucks, IC buses, and Holiday Rambler RVs, to name a few, jumped at the chance to break into the medium-duty electric truck market when the Obama administration launched a competitive grant program for manufacturers.

The result was the Navistar eStar, a 100-mile-per-charge, 2-ton payload electric van that is ideally suited as a delivery or service vehicle in urban settings.

Unlike other electric trucks that are reconfigured models of fossil-fuel trucks, the eStar truck has been purpose-built for electric power, creating an advantage with a low center of gravity (the heavy battery pack is located between the frame rails, not mounted on top) and a tight, 36-foot turning radius.

But creating an industry from a dead stop takes time. Less than 1 percent of the 135,000 medium-duty trucks that U.S. companies will buy this year will be electric, according to Americas Commercial Transportation Research.

Navistar, for one, has built just 78 eStars thus far.

But market penetration is forecast to increase as the cost of batteries, which currently accounts for roughly one-third of the cost of electric trucks like the eStar, is expected to drop substantially over the next 5 to 10 years, with the bulk of that savings transferred into a lower sticker price. And lower battery prices would be particularly advantageous for the eStar, which at $150,000, is much more expensive than its more established competitors, the Smith Newton ($100,000) and the smaller Ford Transit Connect ($57,000).

While U.S. Government is supplying seed money for manufacturers and financial incentives for buyers to stand up the electric truck niche, electric vehicle fleets will ultimately need to stand on their own financial merits and compete with gas-powered vehicles on an even playing field. And even if a price was put on tailpipe emissions tomorrow, making petroleum products more expensive to use, that day is still a few years away.

The good news is that improvements in advanced battery technologies made in utilitarian commercial trucks and vans today will trickle down to improve the efficiency of the passenger wagons, mini-vans and sedans of tomorrow.

Article by Timothy B. Hurst, appearing courtesy Earth & Industry.

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