Volvo delivers first VNR Electric to East Coast

For Juan Corcino, senior director of fleet operations and sustainability for Manhattan Beer Distributors, the decision to wean the fleet off diesel fuel was personal.

He has two children who suffer from asthma, a breathing condition that’s disproportionately high in The Bronx due to poor air quality. In 2001, company president and founder Simon Bergson was approached by local officials with a request to cut back on diesel fumes from its headquarters.

Thus began a mission to eliminate diesel consumption, beginning with the retrofit of 15 trucks to burn compressed natural gas using John Deere engines, and taking its next huge leap forward this week with the delivery of its first of five VNR Electric trucks, Volvo’s first to be deployed on the U.S. East Coast.

Corcino said Manhattan Beer Distributors was the first fleet in the U.S. private sector to build its own CNG fueling station. Today, about half of its 400-truck fleet runs off renewable CNG and it plans to replace 35 trucks a year with electric offerings to be completely diesel-free in four years.

Manhattan Beer Distributors is the first East Coast fleet to deploy the Volvo VNR Electric. (Photo: James Menzies)

“When we started the program in 2001, our goal was to be diesel-free by 2020,” said Bergson. “It didn’t come to fruition because our fleet went from 200 trucks to 400.”

But the company remains focused on the end goal. It has also installed solar panels on the roofs of its 190,000 sq.-ft. headquarters in The Bronx and two other facilities, each in excess of 100,000 sq.-ft. That power will ultimately help provide the electricity to power the electric trucks, but Bergson noted the company must first feed that power into the grid then buy it back – delivery charges on both transactions.

“They have to get their vig,” he shrugged, referring to the local electrical utility. However, he added they’ve been supportive in promising to bring as much power as needed to the company’s doorstep to initially power up to 40 Class 8 electric trucks.

The distributor has also committed to receiving more product by rail as part of its multipronged effort to reduce emissions. “More than half of our product is received by rail, eliminating thousands of truck trips annually from our streets,” Bergson said at an Aug. 12 press conference marking the delivery of the first VNR Electric.

In a twist of fate, Manhattan Beer Distributors’ foray into electrification was in part funded by an unrelated automotive company that skirted its environmental responsibilities. It received a US$950,000 grant from the New York City of Transportation’s NYC Clean Trucks Program, with funds collected from the state’s lawsuit against Volkswagen stemming from its emissions cheating scandal. The state is putting some of those funds towards a truck voucher incentive program that will see older diesel trucks replaced with zero-emissions models.

Juan Corcino, senior director of fleet operations, demonstrates charging of the company’s first VNR Electric. (Photo: James Menzies)

The trucks were sold and are being supported by local dealer network Milea Truck Sales & Leasing, which has become Volvo’s first electric vehicle-certified dealer on the East Coast, and second overall. This qualifies it to consult customers on their transition to Class 8 electric truck deployment, identify compatible routes, help customers tap into available grants and incentives, and recommend the right electric vehicles for their needs. Certification also requires the dealer to train its technicians to maintain the vehicles.

Corcino said the fleet will lean on Milea to handle all maintenance on the trucks for six years, giving it time to bring its own technicians up to speed and gain a better understanding of the maintenance requirements.

Peter Voorhoeve, president of Volvo Trucks North America, credited the beer distributor for taking a leadership position in reducing emissions. Latching onto the Summer Olympics theme, he said getting electric trucks into the field is a team effort – much like a relay race – involving fleets, government agencies, electrical utilities and charging infrastructure suppliers, and other stakeholders.

“Getting this vehicle on the roads is teamwork, more than just developing a truck and selling it,” he said. “We played one role in this race by developing the truck.”

Manhattan Beer Distributors’ application is well-suited for e-mobility, because routes are short with frequent starting and stopping to regenerate the batteries.

“The routes in Manhattan we service might put 15 miles on per day,” said Bergson. “There is no highway through Manhattan.”

That 15-mile route may take six to nine hours to complete, as traffic congestion in New York City worsens. [Fun fact: The company doles out $2.5 million a year in parking tickets, as roads are further strangled by dedicated bike and bus lanes]. While shorter routes will make up the initial deployments, Corcino said the company ran simulations with Volvo and found the VNR Electric could handle even its longest inner-city routes twice between charges, even building in full payloads and bad driving habits.

Manhattan Beer Distributors has installed five charging stations for its latest additions. (Photo: James Menzies)

“The majority of trucks actually drive in and around cities,” Voorhoeve noted, “doing local distribution where the majority of people live.”

But Corcino noted there are routes the company runs that don’t yet make sense for electrification, and so CNG will continue to be a part of the company’s path to eliminating diesel. Even before deploying the VNR Electric the company has reduced its diesel consumption by 1.35 million gallons a year while doubling its fleet size.

The company acknowledged government incentives were required to make the investment feasible, but hopes that won’t always be the case. Volvo’s Voorhoeve said industry reports suggest as production volumes increase, electric trucks could achieve cost parity with diesel by 2024-2025. Meanwhile 100% of electricity can be put to the wheels while about 40% of diesel is lost due to inefficiencies. The most important factor, he added, is the cost of batteries, which continue to decrease.

And he is optimistic recent messaging from Washington will help speed the penetration of electric vehicles of all sorts, reducing the cost of the related batteries.

Barry Milea, president of Milea Truck Sales & Leasing, said truck operators watch industry leaders such as Manhattan Beer Distributors and take cues from their actions.

“There’s a lot of interest, but we need a catalyst,” he said of electromobility. “Other companies will see what they’ve done.”

The VNR Electric spec’d by the company is a single-axle day cab, which will pull a pup trailer. The remaining four on order are expected to arrive later this month. The fleet delivers 45 million cases of beer each year to bars, restaurants and stores.

James Menzies is editor of Today's Trucking. He has been covering the Canadian trucking industry for more than 18 years and holds a CDL. Reach him at james@newcom.ca or follow him on Twitter at @JamesMenzies.

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