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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.

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Another huge factor boosting the business case for electric trucks is the president's call for new fuel efficiency standards for commercial trucks. There have never been any standards for trucks weighing over 8,000 pounds, Mr. Van Amburg says. But by fall, the Obama administration expects to propose the first new fuel economy and carbon emissions standards for trucks. Those standards would be implemented by 2014.

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With fuel prices expected to rise over the long term – and new fuel standards coming in – signs of business interest are popping up. Navistar already has an all-electric delivery truck in early production. Another big truck maker, Freightliner, is making all-electric parcel delivery trucks, too. Calstart's last hybrid truck users forum, which focuses on speeding commercialization of hybrid and plug-in technology into the truck market, had 550 members, including 80 fleets and most major truck makers and systems suppliers.

"No question about it, the commercial fleet market is a giant untapped opportunity for electrified vehicles," says Felix Kramer, co-founder of Calcars, a California-based group that promotes plug-in technology. "We think the future will be retrofitting existing trucks with electric-drive technology."

Because companies with fleets of trucks tend to look at the total cost of lifetime ownership, the case is compelling if a retrofitted truck can shift from 10 to 15 miles per gallon to 20 to 40 all-electric miles. Cost is an issue, though. A traditional FEDEX-style delivery truck might cost about $50,000, and the hybrid version about $95,000, Van Amburg estimates. But a plug-in or all-electric version could cost $100,000 to $130,000.

Fleet buyers can justify a premium of 20 to 30 percent over the base cost of a truck. But incentives are needed for perhaps the next four to five years. A bill pending in Congress would restore some tax incentives that have lapsed, Van Amburg says. Meanwhile, there are indications that battery costs could drop by as much as half over the next five years.

"We think this is just the beginning," Mr. Kramer says. "You don't need lots of batteries for these trucks – and you can make customers and neighbors happy by being quiet and emission-free."