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Electricity key to future fleets

UNION CITY, Ind. -- Jay Sandler wont be surprised if trucking fleets will just plug in to an electrical outlet to ...

UNION CITY, Ind. — Jay Sandler wont be surprised if trucking fleets will just plug in to an electrical outlet to refuel in the not-so-distant future.

The vice-president of commercial products for Workhorse Custom Chassis thinks medium-duty work trucks of all kinds powered mainly by electricity are only five to 10 years away.

While hybrid electric cars have been in the news for some time, only recently have hybrid truck options come to the fore for heavy-duty pick up and delivery chores, as well as for an array of construction, maintenance and service trucks.

A recent trade show sponsored by the National Truck Equipment Association included a special display of hybrid trucks, while a special hybrid truck seminar attracted an overflow crowd.

With environmental concerns coupled to rising fuel and engine costs, the search for alternative fuels and other sources of power has never been more heated in the trucking industry. Major parcel delivery fleets, such as UPS, FedEx, Purolator of Canada and USPS have put a variety of hybrids and alternative fuel vehicles into experimental use.

For most fleets, however, hybrid technology remains too expensive despite such advantages as a 30 to 50 percent reduction in fuel costs, less maintenance, less noise and fumes (helpful in residential areas), and the hybrids environmental benefit.

However, events are starting to make hybrids more palatable.

2007 emission requirements have upped the cost of diesel engines to $4,000 to $10,000 more than 2006 models, said Sandler. And more requirements and price increases are coming in 2010.

Sandler is a 30-year veteran of the trucking industry and his company has been one of those in the forefront of providing such solutions.

Workhorse and other manufacturers of trucks and truck components have been working with hybrid technology for some years now, noted Sandler. A number of fleets and companies have been very proactive in looking at multiple solutions that will contribute to a cleaner environment.

Workhorse recently developed two hybrid electric versions of its step van chassis for two different parcel delivery companies, Purolator of Canada and UPS. Because these are custom builds, neither version is cheap. But with a few more developments, both hold promise, according to Sandler.

In the past year we engineered two totally different hybrid solutions and theres more were looking at, said Sandler. From a price standpoint, as orders go up, production costs will come down. But advancements in technology will also be key, particularly in terms of battery storage capacity. And I dont think were far away from that.

Such trucks, according to Sandler, would fuel up by plugging into an electrical outlet of whatever configured voltage. Cost-effectiveness would be enhanced by doing this at night, when the power grid has the least amount of demand and power might be purchased more cheaply.

At present, the hybrid battery pack is the most expensive component we add to make a hybrid electric truck, Sandler explains. With more efficient battery storage a fleet of plug in trucks would work quite well.

That will result in an electric-powered vehicle for most of the day. A small gas or diesel engine would provide supplemental energy, if needed. For a walk-in truck, this would probably be a 2 or 2 liter engine that would run the generator, said Sandler.

When the battery charge drops to a certain level, the generator automatically starts up and recharges the batteries. At the end of a typical day, 70% of the trucks energy may have come from the overnight plug-in and 30% from the onboard generator, putting regular fuel consumption at 50 to 60 miles per gallon or more for stop-and-go driving.

Because they serve local routes with a lot of stop and go driving, pick up and delivery fleets of all kinds will likely lead the way in this hybrid revolution, said Sandler.

Parcel delivery fleets have been the leaders in experimenting with hybrid electric trucks thus far because in the near term that is where hybrid electric technology can provide the greatest cost savings, he added. I expect bakeries, textile rental operations and other local delivery fleets will also be early adopters of this technology.

Sandler has seen many changes in his own time in the industry. Prior to Workhorse he held executive positions at Bering Truck Corporation and Meritor Automotive, formerly Rockwell Automotive, where he began his career as an engineer.

Fleets need to come to grips with the fact that the electric truck is no longer something to dismiss as science fiction, concluded Sandler. Just like cars, hybrid electric trucks are here now, and may well be everywhere tomorrow.

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