Wanted: a Prius for the delivery industry

At ‘AltWheels’ expo, inventors bring the hybrid mind-set to gas-guzzling shipping trucks.

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

A Staples delivery van. A utility company bucket truck. An electrically assisted cargo tricycle. These aren’t the kinds of vehicles that leap to mind when we hear the phrase “hybrid vehicle.”

But that’s changing. A huge chunk of greenhouse-gas and other harmful emissions spew out of the tailpipes of commercial vehicles. And with fuel costs rising, interest in ways to cut or eliminate the use of petroleum fuels is at an all-time high.

“What’s been happening in passenger vehicles is now coming to [commercial fleet operators], the guys who most need this because the biggest gas users are the biggest vehicles,” says Alison Sander, founder of AltWheels Fleet Day, the largest gathering of alternative-power commercial vehicles on the East Coast.

The autumn event in Framingham, Mass., showed off 45 alternative-powered vehicles to hundreds of corporate fleet managers and government officials from 28 states. The vehicles, which range in size from an electric scooter to a large Class 6 (25,000 lb. gross weight) truck, used a variety of alternative-power schemes, including hybrid electric, plug-in all-electric, hydrogen fuel cells, compressed natural gas, biodiesel, and 85 percent ethanol.

Attendance at the event tripled this year to 300 people. In the event’s first year, 89 percent of fleet managers said they were “skeptical” about the use of alternative-power systems. This year, more than 60 percent of fleet managers were at least experimenting with alternative fuels, Ms. Sander says.

Staples, the office supply giant, is testing two hybrid delivery trucks built by Isuzu and souped up with electric motors from Enova Systems.

Smith Electric Vehicles, based in Britain, showed off a large all-electric plug-in delivery truck that recharges in 4-1/2 to 6 hours. Designed for urban streets, it has a range of 130 to 150 miles per charge and a top speed of 50 m.p.h. Smith plans to begin selling the battery-powered vehicles in the United States beginning next year.

Sander conceived of the AltWheels event after visiting a rain forest in Ecuador several years ago. The tribal chief told her he had dreamed that his rain forest, and all rain forests, would disappear unless something changed. “You need to go back to your native place” and figure out how to change that vision, he told her.

By bringing innovative companies together with fleet managers, Sander expects many ways will emerge to cut petroleum use.

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