Alternative vehicles get their day

Gregory M. Lamb
An all electric plug-in truck from Smith Electric Vehicles.

The world of alternative-powered vehicles is booming. Gas prices north of $4 this summer have gotten the attention not only of consumers, but businesses as well. From hybrid diesel-electric delivery trucks to electric-assisted cargo tricycles, natural gas and hydrogen fuel-cell power plants to the minuscule Smart Car, new ways to get people and cargo where they need to go efficiently are springing up.

The fourth annual AltWheels Fleet Day held Sept. 28 in Framingham, Mass., just west of Boston, put 45 alternative-powered vehicles on display, making it the largest alternative vehicle showcase on the East Coast. The 300 participants were triple the number of just a year ago, says event found Alison Sander. They included Ford, GM, Honda, Toyota, Isuzu, and a host of aftermarket and specialized manufacturers. Listening to their pitches were corporate fleet managers, who are looking to save money on transportation costs as well as green-up their image.

Staples, the office supply giant, hosted the event at its headquarters. Staples has two hybrid delivery trucks built by Isuzu and souped up with electric motors from Enova that its testing right now. Smith Electric Vehicles, based in Britain, showed off a large delivery truck that's all electric and boasts an estimated cost-per-mile of 11.5 cents. It powers up overnight (4 1/2 to 6 hours) off the electric grid. Made for use on urban streets, it has a range of 130-150 miles per charge and a top speed of 50 m.p.h. Smith plans to begin selling the lithium-ion battery-powered vehicles in the US beginning next year.

John Viera, Ford's director of sustainable business strategies, laid out his company's future in a small meeting with members of the news media. Ford's looking at new technologies that will meet its criteria of being both affordable and capable of selling in high volume. The company is high on its new line of EcoBoost engines, which it expects will hike gas mileage by up to 20 percent and cut CO2 emissions by up to 15 percent. They draw on two proven technologies (direct fuel injection and turbo-charging) and will allow V8 engines to be replaced by V6s, and V6s replaced by V4s, without any lose of horsepower or torque. Ford aims to have EcoBoost engines available in 90 percent of its nameplates by 2013.

Meanwhile, it's looking for ways to inch economy higher in a number of small ways, including slimming down vehicle weight, six-speed transmissions (4 to 6 percent better fuel fuel economy), and lighter-weight electric power-assisted steering (3 to 5 percent better fuel economy). It's also expanding its hybrids to the Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan mid-size sedans, which will greatly increase the number of hybrid Fords on showroom floors. The company is eyeing plug-in hybrids but isn't diving in in a major way.

Ford is also planning to import some of its popular small vehicles now being sold only in Europe. They include the Fiesta sedan and Transit Connect small van, six small vehicles in all by 2012.

I got to drive a Ford Focus powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. I would have never known I was driving a fuel-cell-powered vehicle except for a slight whine from the rear of the car. Acceleration from stoplights was brisk.

Meanwhile, GM is letting consumers test a fleet of 100 hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles right now in a program called Project Driveway.

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