EVs make good CVs

Most of us think of electric vehicles as cutting-edge technology. But 80 or 90 years ago, if you lived in a city, your bread, milk and clean laundry was probably delivered to your house by an electric truck. In the first decade of the 20th century, local delivery fleets found the acceleration, clean operation and 35-mi. range of electric vans to be far superior to the alternatives, a horse and cart

Most of us think of electric vehicles as cutting-edge technology. But 80 or 90 years ago, if you lived in a city, your bread, milk and clean laundry was probably delivered to your house by an electric truck.

In the first decade of the 20th century, local delivery fleets found the acceleration, clean operation and 35-mi. range of electric vans to be far superior to the alternatives, a horse and cart or a noisy, inefficient early gasoline-engined truck. As early as 1915, The New York Times was writing about “large scale adoption” of electric trucks by laundries, bakeries, dairies and department stores with individual fleets of 600 or more battery-powered vehicles.

“In fact, the largest transportation delivery fleets in the world are chiefly composed of electric vehicles,” an Oct. 10, 1915, article read. “One reason … is that large and successful organizations usually approach their transportation problems from a practical engineering basis.”

In the 1920s and '30s, it wasn't unusual for a company like Pilgrim Laundry to have 1,000 electric trucks, each running a daily route with as many as 50 stops. Advances in gasoline and diesel engines overtook the early EVs, but as late as 1960, the Saturday Evening Post wrote about 70 electric trucks still in use by UPS at a New York City depot and reported on a revival of electric truck manufacturing delivering new vehicles to fleets in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Obviously, the Post was a bit too optimistic, or maybe it was just 50 years ahead of the curve, and we're about to finally see that revival gather some speed. Just last month, a business group dedicated to promoting EVs as the future of U.S. personal transportation released a “roadmap” that calls for fleet adoption of electrics as the first step in that transformation.

Volume is needed to drive down the cost of the vehicles and their batteries as well as encourage the creation of a recharging infrastructure, the two elements needed to attract a significant consumer base for EVs. Both commercial and government fleets are well positioned to provide that initial volume, according to the Electrification Coalition.

Their reasoning is sound. Fleets buy trucks based on total cost of ownership, not initial cost or emotional appeal, and in the right applications with the right incentives, EVs could offer significant lifetime savings to a fleet. Many fleets have predictable daily routes, allowing trucks to be designed and powered to run those routes without expensive over-spec'ing. Compared to the general driving public, fleets have high utilization rates, allowing them to quickly recoup higher initial costs through lower operating and maintenance costs. And fleets have central parking facilities, allowing them to recharge EVs without a public infrastructure while also taking advantage of lower industrial electricity rates.

Even with all those factors favoring fleets of EVs, large obstacles remain. Battery cost is still high; the residual value of first-generation batteries remains unknown; and charging systems are expensive to install, even in centralized terminal facilities. The Electrification Coalition's solution to overcoming those obstacles are expanded tax credits for fleets buying light-, medium- and heavy-duty EVs; clean renewable energy bonds to fund fleet charging infrastructures; and similar tax-based incentives that would help fleets offset some of the high initial costs associated with being an early adopter of EV technology.

Maybe they could use a bit of nostaglia to help them sell the idea, too.

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