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Obama touts electric delivery truck, but still a long haul to market?

President Obama on Thursday toured a Missouri factory that makes electric delivery trucks, dismissing criticism of his program to provide federal funding to promote electric vehicles.

By Staff writer / July 8, 2010

President Obama tours the Smith Electric Vehicles facility in Kansas City, Mo., on Thursday.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

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President Obama visited one of America's first makers of electric delivery trucks Thursday, touting the job-creating advantages of reshaping the US automotive fleet with an emphasis on running not just cars, but trucks, on batteries.

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Entering a hangar-like building at Smith Electric Vehicles in Kansas City, Mo., Mr. Obama was shown a rack of lime-green batteries the company now installs into delivery trucks, converting them from diesel to electric power.

A nearby Frito Lay truck had "Good fun – powered by electricity" plastered across its exterior. The private company, which received a $32 million Department of Energy grant in March, is the US offshoot of a British parent that does the same thing.

"They ought to tell the workers of Smith Electric that we’d be better off if your jobs didn’t exist," the president said, taking issue with critics who oppose his program to provide government funding to promote electric vehicles. "They ought to travel across America and meet the people I’ve met at places like Navistar in Indiana, where folks are being hired to build new electric trucks."

Highlighting jobs created by new electric truck makers might sound like a risky move for a president eager to show his policies – including federal grants – are making a difference in the economy. Who ever heard of an electric delivery truck anyway?

But like the image in a rear-view mirror, nearly silent, plug-in trucks – and the jobs they could create as manufacturing of them increases – may be a lot "closer than they appear," observers say.

Early market studies suggest that as much as 30 percent of urban work trucks could be standard (Toyota Prius-like) gas-electric hybrids by 2020, according to Calstart, a Pasadena-based, clean transportation technology organization that works with about 130 companies nationwide. Another 5 to 10 percent could be plug-in hybrid (electric mainly with small gas engine) or all-electric trucks.

"What we're seeing is confluence of more robust electric technology, steadily decreasing battery costs, and concern about the fuel-price roller coaster," says Bill Van Amburg, senior vice president for Calstart. "That has produced a stronger business case for companies to move toward electrifying their fleets."

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