here come the electrics

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Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz are credited with introducing the first internal combustion vehicle in 1886. But Canadians were initially more interested in battery-powered trucks. In 1898, mercantile visionary Robert Simpson of Toronto, bought an electric delivery wagon manufactured by Fischer Equipment of Chicago. The second truck in Canada was also an electric purchased by the Parker Dye Works of Toronto. It was even made here by the Still Motor Company on nearby Yonge Street.

For decades, auto and truck manufacturers were undecided about which energy source to use. They experimented with electric, steam and gas powered engines, and we all know who won the race. Until now.

What goes around comes around and electric technology is back with a vengeance. Although North America lags behind Europe in this field, two all-electric trucks are currently in limited production on this continent: the eStar made by Navistar in Wakarusa, Ind., and the Smith Electric’s Newton assembled in Kansas City, Mo.

Diesel-electric medium- and heavy-duty hybrids are becoming increasingly popular with Class 6 and 7 customers. Navistar has the longest track record with its DuraStar model, while other OEMs are active with their own platforms. OEMs are also looking to provide LNG and CNG options for customers, while work goes on with the more experimental hydrogen fuel cell and hydraulic hybrid technologies.

These units are expensive but expected to come down in price, and some offsetting government grants are available for “greening” fleets. But urban and regional truck fleets, both P&D or vocational, are considered to be an exponential growth area for electric and hybrid technologies.

Purolator’s Hybridization Experience

Purolator Courier jumped into HEVs in 2005 when it placed an order for 115 series diesel-electric curbside vans. Today, they have 204 curbside Class 4 P&D trucks in operation across Canada. They’ve also field-tested a 4300 series International diesel-electric DuraStar five-tonne and experimented with a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle.

Utilizing a Ford chassis and hybrid technology supplied by Azure Dynamics, the curbside hybrids have paid off big time, according to national fleet manager Serge Viola. “We’re realizing about 25-30% fuel savings on the trucks. As far as maintenance goes, it’s about the same. We service the trucks right at the depots. This has involved some training for the mechanics, and we’ve had to get them laptops and the tools they need to do the servicing.”

Viola can show that brake replacement and servicing has been reduced because of the regenerative braking system that recharges the Nickel Cadmium batteries. The NiCad batteries will eventually be replaced with Lithium Ion cells according to Viola. “Better battery, longer range,” he says.

It’s interesting to note the evolution of Purolator’s curbside hybrids from series powered diesel-electrics to parallel gas-electrics. “Initially, Azure had based their product on the Series HEV vehicle, thinking this was the way to go for full fuel efficiency,” says Viola. “Later, as the Parallel system evolved and a need for longer on highway range was required, the Parallel system was the better alternative for our needs. It also provided a backup in case the hybrid system failed during the day.”

Viola also makes the point that gas-powered hybrids are the way to go at present because the stripped Ford chassis only comes with a petrol engine. “We really had no choice unless we moved to a more expensive chassis (which) would’ve made the business case worse. Plus, we really don’t require a heavier chassis for what we carry. The first series from Azure actually took a Ford European 2.4 L diesel from Europe and switched the engines in the truck. That engine does not meet North American Emission standards so we couldn’t do that anymore.

“With 2010 emissions (SCR or Enhanced EGR), diesel engines packages are getting very expensive as compared to gas engines,” says Viola. “Also fuel economy on gas engines and engine longevity is improving in this class of vehicle (Class 4). You see more fleets dropping the diesel in that class of truck.”

Smith Electric Trucks now in Canada

Smith Electric Vehicles has a long history of truck manufacture in Europe, but is new to North America. A $32 million grant from the Obama administration certainly kick-started their Kansas City plant to start churning out the first 200 Newton models. Two Canadian companies are the recipients of the first SEVs in Canada: Frito Lay has bought six of these trucks and Novex Courier of Vancouver has two units running around BC’s lower mainland.

Frito Lay route driver Jay McAughey was ecstatic about the truck after three days on the road. His route takes him 72 km from the depot and he arrives back in the yard with 20% charge to spare. None of his route is freeway driving, but he admits to a top speed of 95 kph on Derry Road. “You can feel the battery regenerating when you let up on the throttle.” After a day’s work, it takes from six to eight hours to recharge the lithium ion iron phosphate battery packs. A 220V plug is located just under the driver’s door.

I drove the Smith around the block on a very hot day in Brampton, Ont. The Czech-built body provides extremely good sight lines and an amazing turning radius. Its bubble-like canopy reminds me of a White 3000 from the 1950s.

This is a Class 5 or 6 vehicle with a 7,000 kg GVW and a 17-ft box. No transmission, just a joy stick that has three positions: forward, reverse or neutral. The 120 kW induction motor sends power directly to the drive wheels. There’s room for three people in the cab with a bench passenger seat, but it seats only two comfortably. The truck is peppy on acceleration and has lots of torque at low speeds, but a lot less at the top end.

The Smith ran almost noiseless, a subtle whirring on acceleration, except for cooling fans that stayed on constantly. It will be interesting to see how these units respond to extreme cold weather. Smaller motors located at the front of the chassis drive the power steering and air compressor (the current package only comes with air brakes so drivers will need to get an air brake endorsement). The Newton also comes with air conditioning as an option, but this seems like an unnecessary drag on the power supply.

Make no mistake, these trucks are expensive, $170,000-200,000-plus, depending on the number of battery packs you buy. But Helmi Ansari, Frito Lay’s operations analyst and sustainability leader, expects to keep the trucks for 10 years and maybe 15, during which time he anticipates saving $8,000-9,000 per unit on fuel per year (at $1/litre). Correspondingly, he estimates hydro costs to be somewhere around $400-600 per year. “The power train should long outlast the body,” he says.

Bryan Hansel, CEO of Smith Electric Vehicles US, thinks that the price of the vehicles will come down as production ramps up (they’ve currently delivered 55 of the first 200 trucks in the initial run). He also expects the price of batteries to halve every 18 months. “Almost no maintenance, no oil changes, we feel we can justify the 10-year plan,” he says.

PHETT: the world’s greenest shunt truck

Shunting might be the best application for regenerative braking: lots of stops in an intense duty cycle. Capacity of Longview, Texas has seized on the idea and produced an electric shunt truck that meets all the criteria of its diesel counterparts, and even outperforms them in certain ways. These trucks are more expensive than the standard shunt truck, but corporations with busy docking operations are looking for ways to mitigate their carbon footprint and reduce fuel costs. According to George Cobham Jr., vice-president of sales for Capacity/Great Dane in Mississauga, Ont., some companies are asking for bids on electric shunts in their equipment tenders.

From a driver’s perspective, there appears to be even more room i
n the cab. What I like about it is that the instrumentation is almost indistinguishable from a run-of-the-mill Capacity or Ottawa truck – controls, switches and buttons in about the same place. An experienced hydraulic driver can get in one and start shunting with only a little training.

This is a true electric; the bad boy Baldor 225 hp motor can put out 12,000 ft-lb of torque, which means it’s very quick in the yard. Power is transmitted directly to the massive rear axle, which is a Sisu planetary axle rated for 70,000 lbs. I particularly liked the high speed button on the boom lever. The shift lever is again a simple three-position joystick. Other than a gauge showing the state of charge, the instrument layout is pretty well identical to Capacity’s Trailer Jockey models.

The industrial Onan diesel generator never kicked in during my test run as there was lots of electricity to spare for a couple of hours of operation. The diesel generator only puts out 40 hp and charges up the battery when it drops below half-charge, burning half the fuel that a diesel shunt would use. “Shunting comes in bursts of activity,” says Cobham. “And some of our customers will never hear the diesel start up. After completing his shunts, the driver plugs the truck into the outlet and the batteries recharge that way.”

The 40 hp diesel generator is rated industrial, so there’s no need for an expensive steel-plated stack with sensors. The muffler hangs below the chassis and has no pollution controls or fetters.

The ride is solid, though a little “tankish,” as the PHETT sits on a rigid frame weighing an extra 4,000 lbs. It’s unlikely this thing will get stuck much in the winter. The extra weight is distributed equally among 50 batteries located in two packs on both sides of the frame. The wheelbase is slightly longer to accommodate the packs (130″), but Capacity has compensated by making the front axle spread a little wider and the wheel cut a little steeper. There was no compromise to manoeuvrability that I could tell.

Rolling, the PHETT sounds a little like a subway or trolley bus. As mentioned, there was lots of power at the lower end and terrific acceleration. But it tops out at 45 kph and I found that a little slow for a plated on-road truck. I’d like to see 60 kph at least if you’re going to operate in traffic. Maybe an overdrive gear could be inserted somewhere in the drive train for plated units.

Capacity’s PHETT comes with air conditioning as an option, something most shunt drivers want and need. A supplemental Webasto heater is mounted behind the driver’s seat with lots of extra BTUs for those challenging Canadian winters.

Loblaws testing Peterbilt-Eaton hybrid

I wanted to drive the Loblaws “green” tractor ever since it passed me on the 401. The driver told me on the CB radio that he was fourth on the seniority list in Whitby and his name came up to drive it that night. He loved it, of course: “Lots of acceleration up hills.” A few calls to the Loblaws publicist got me invited to a photo shoot at their Cambridge, Ont. facility where I did get a chance to slip behind the wheel.

Wal-Mart has been experimenting with 386 Peterbilt Class 8 hybrids since 2007, but Loblaws is the first Canadian fleet to get one for a field test. The tractor and trailer unit comes with the whole aero package – single tires, roof tabs, trailer skirts – but it’s what’s in the power train that’s really interesting. A 60 hp motor-generator assists the 400 hp Cummins ISX engine on starts and low speed acceleration. During deceleration and braking the motor generator’s two batteries get charged and that power is then used to assist the Cummins on takeoff.

The truck was quick and responsive on takeoff – everything you’d expect from a new Pete. Personally, I couldn’t tell when the generator-motor kicked in, but I’m told if you feather the throttle just right, you can back into a dock without even using the diesel.

The dash is all standard Peterbilt, with the exception of a digitalized schematic of the wheels and power train showing what the generator and motor are doing. Power is channelled through an Eaton Ultra-Shift automatic; a simple punch pad gets you in gear. “Not much training required,” says Matt Preston, Canadian fleet sales manager for Peterbilt. “More on safety training as the system is 340 volts.”

Wal-Mart has been testing these units in their line-haul operation, which would account for limited fuel savings when running the highway. But Loblaws’ focus will be on using this truck in its urban and regional delivery system. Delivery to food stores is often done in congested urban and suburban areas with lots of frequent stops. The hybrid components weigh an extra 400 lbs, but fuel savings of 8-10% might be expected in a typical line-haul operation, perhaps more in a multi-drop operation.

Wayne Scott, senior director truck maintenance for Loblaws Companies Ltd., thinks it’s too early to make cost comparisons on the feasibility of incorporating hybrids into their fleet, but he’s happy with the trials so far: He writes via e-mail: “The pilot of the hybrid project is going very well. We are getting positive feedback from our drivers…It has been operating to the same standard as our traditional Class 8 trucks.”

Loblaws has set a target of 2% fuel reduction over 2009 levels and Scott has adopted a variety of tactics to get there: “This includes the use of biodiesel, reduced idling, replacing older transport trucks with new trucks that adhere to the latest emissions standards and potentially integrating trucks that run on hybrid technology into our corporate fleet.”

Meanwhile, work goes on at Peterbilt in refining the concept even further. According to Preston, “Peterbilt along with Eaton
are working on a generation 2 hybrid for a Class 8 hybrid that will be equipped with a larger motor generator to try to prolong the electric assistance.”

Making the case for the environment

Presenting the business case for adopting alternative technologies to a fleet can be a daunting task. The high price
of these units means that the payoff is years down the road. But environmental concerns have become the third most important variable in any fleet operation after price and service. Companies across the spectrum have made it part of their mission statement to operate sustainably and responsibly, and this carries over into trucking operations. Furthermore, as has been shown, substantial fuel savings can be had by going this route.

Ken Johnston, president of Novex Couriers of Surrey, B.C., owner of two Smith electrics as mentioned above, has made it part of his company’s mandate to move all freight by hybrid or better by 2015. He laughs and tells me on the phone he’s 20% of the way there.

Fleets that are going “green” are quite happy to boast about their equipment. They can use their state-of-the-art technology to advertise and develop new markets. “We’ve walked the walk over the years and a lot of our partners like what we’re doing,” says Johnston. “They want to do something sustainable, and they want to know what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.” mt

– Harry Rudolfs is the rare combination of a journalist and trucker. He has logged more than a million miles, and this insight allows him to tackle the issues truckers love to talk about – and, occasionally, a few they don’t.

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  • Anyone reading this article might be interested to know that the Smith’s Electric Vehicle was designed by Smith’s Electric Vehicles in England who are owned by Tanfield Group, a holding company who currently own 49% of Smiths Electric vehicles United States and 100% of Smith’s Electric Vehicles United Kingdom.

    Smiths Electric Vehicles United States are currently negotiating with Tanfield to buy Smith’s Electric Vehicles U.K.

    Clive Evrall

    (Tanfield shareholder)