Electric Vehicles

Small Fleets Plugging In

September 2009, Green Fleet Magazine - Feature

by - Also by this author

Work trucks with hybrid-electric powertrains have been in fleet testing since the beginning of the millennium.

National corporations with large delivery fleets such as PepsiCo, Coca Cola, Frito Lay, UPS and FedEx have been leading the way, using proprietary delivery vans purpose-built in conjunction with hybrid propulsion systems makers Eaton and Odyne.

Meanwhile, large municipal fleets have been first adopters of hybrid trucks for utility, telecom, refuse and over-the-road applications.

Truck manufacturers International, Freightliner, Kenworth and Peterbilt all market, in limited quantities, hybrid-electric versions of their gas- and diesel-powered medium- and heavy-duty offerings.

Now pure electric work vehicles are coming into play, in configurations that make sense for small fleets. The recently passed American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 is spurring the charge with financial incentives of up to $15,000 for the purchase of electric vehicles, in addition to state and municipal grants and tax credits.

Nonetheless, the mass production of over-the-road electric work vehicles is still "on the horizon." Manufacturers must contend with costly and ever-changing battery technology, and developing a sales and service infrastructure is a major undertaking. Making the business case for an electric work vehicle is a challenge. Even with government incentives, the savings recouped in fuel could take years to outweigh the high cap costs.

Even so, the market for commercial all-electric vehicles has exploded in the past two years with major manufacturers and startup companies jumping on board. Here is an update of four manufacturers' plans to develop all-electric (EV) and plug-in hybrid electric (PHEV) vehicles aimed specifically for small- and medium-sized fleet use.

A Bright IDEA

Bright Automotive is developing the world's first purpose-built, mass-produced PHEV. Named the IDEA, the Class 1 and 2a van is aimed at commercial and government fleets.

On a full charge, the IDEA uses battery power for the first 30 miles, using little or no gasoline and less than $1 of electricity. After this, it functions like other hybrids. For commercial customers with a 50-mile daily urban route, Bright says the IDEA uses about a half-gallon of gas, which is equivalent to attaining 100 mpg.

At the same time, Bright says each IDEA will reduce CO2 output by up to 16 tons each year over competing vehicles. A key reason for such high efficiency is vehicle weight and aerodynamics: the curb weight target for the IDEA is 3,200 pounds, some 1,500 pounds less than the average competitor.

The IDEA features a 180-cu.-ft., 1-ton cargo capacity, ergonomic design, innovative cargo compartment and a patent-pending passenger seat that converts to a mobile office. The company says it consulted with more than 50 fleet managers in the design process.

Bright Automotive launched in 2008 out of the energy and environmental think tank Rocky Mountain Institute. John E. Waters, the company's president and CEO, invented the battery-pack system for GM's first production electric vehicle, the EV1. The manufacturer has announced that high-volume production of the IDEA will begin in the U.S. by the end of 2012, with an annual run rate of 50,000 units beginning in 2013.

In the meantime, the company is looking to install its PHEV powertrain in the European Volkswagen Transporter van and bring it to the U.S. for limited fleet testing in 2010. "The idea is to help get more vehicles out in the hands of fleets so they can develop confidence in our powertrain and overall propulsion system, and get real-world use out of the vehicles," says Lyle Shuey, Bright Automotive's VP of marketing and sales.

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