Missed by a truck

All this time I’ve been posting about electrified vehicles (full BEV or hybrid), from scooters through motorcycles to cars- see https://cableflux.wordpress.com/2012/07/24/therellbeabette/ and https://cableflux.wordpress.com/2012/07/31/which-is-the-better-one-this-year-11/

And yet, I’ve been ignoring trucks. Smith (www.smithelectricvehicles.com) has been quietly delivering panel vans (smaller than an 18-wheeler, but larger than a passenger, non-mini van) for a while now. They’ve been racking up road miles, unassumingly but dutifully. And this is in addition to competing truck makers, train locomotives, offroad work vehicles, military projects, and surface ships and submarines.

Both GM and Ford had limited releases of electrified trucks in the previous (mid- to late-’90s) generation. They didn’t really take, largely because lithium-ion batteries weren’t available. GM and Chrysler tried hybrid pickups, partly because contractors could be offered real, high-powered outlets- an alternative to lugging generators or cabling around worksites. The Japanese maker Hino performed on-road demonstrations with a hybrid panel-van design. At this time, UPS also tried more out-there alternatives, like hydraulic hybrids: vehicles that stored braking energy in a tank of high-pressure hydraulic fluid, to be released on acceleration.

More recently, Smith is now selling full-battery vehicles (not hybrids) to Frito-Lay, Staples, Coca-Cola, and others. There’s a different aspect to fully-commercial trucking that doesn’t exist in cars, or even passenger vans. A commercial truck will easily tally 20,000-30,000 miles or more per year. Once you plan on this, you plan on pulling engines and transmissions every few years, for major overhauls, or outright replacement. An engine- even a diesel- will typically grind itself onto the scrapheap while the chassis still has productive years left. Even if the engine is still good, you can swap it out for its overhauls, so that valuable truck isn’t sitting in a lot, doing nothing. Truck drivetrains are thus modular, and a smart outfit can design an electric system to drop into an existing chassis.

That’s the business plan of Smith’s competitor, EVI (http://www.evi-usa.com). Unlike Smith, EVI has chosen to retrofit electric drivetrains to other makers’ chassis. Similarly, Ford is offering both hybrid and full-electric versions of its cargo vans, as are truck makers Navistar and Volvo Trucks.

Is it even necessary to do the math? Let’s see, 20-30,000 miles per year, at a paltry 11-18 miles per gallon, is… a whole lotta oil. Add in maintenance costs, and companies like UPS and FedEx are searching for the electrified drivetrain that will save them a whole lot. Heck, simply electrifying the accessories makes a noticeable savings. Trucking firms want to run air conditioners, refrigerators, radios, satellite links, etc. all the time without having to idle the main engine and burn precious fuel.

Let’s see, racing motorcycles, delivery trucks and trains, and military vehicles including submarines. So, electrified vehicles are tokens for yuppies? No, both Ford’s head (Bill Clay Ford) and GM’s longtime leader (Bob Lutz), among others, have explictly called the continuing electrification of automobiles “inevitable.”

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