One step at a time

It's a small step, but an important one nonetheless. DHL, part of global package and mail delivery company Deutsche Post DHL, has converted its entire Manhattan delivery fleet to electric and hybrid vehicles as part of a pilot program to gauge their effectiveness in U.S. markets.

“Manhattan is our largest pickup and delivery facility in the U.S.,” says Karsten Aufgebauer, senior vice president and general manager of Area 4 (Northeast) for DHL's U.S. operations. “New York, as a community, is very green-friendly…we thought that the environment we're finding in Manhattan was the most suitable market.”

The deployment of the 80 vehicles, which include 30 Ford Transit Connect Electric vans and 50 Ford E-450 vans retrofitted with a hybrid powertrain, represents nearly 9% of the company's U.S. fleet, which numbers 890 vehicles. Aufgebauer called this program, which launched in the fall of 2011, a “first step” for the company as it continues to explore alternative power and fuels globally as part of its GoGreen campaign.

“There are many more pilots going on, like biogas, in many other countries,” Aufgebauer says. “As a company, we have a very, very strong commitment to sustainability…we're testing different manufacturers, different fuels. For instance, to the best of my knowledge, biogas is not available in Manhattan, but it's on every street corner in Brazil, so biogas vehicles in Brazil make a lot of sense.”

Deutsche Post's GoGreen campaign aims to cut CO2 emissions 30% by 2020. Among the global initiatives under the program are the use of biogas vehicles in Sweden and Switzerland; a German pilot project with 10 vehicles running on sustainably produced biogas; a pilot project in Berlin and in the Cologne-Bonn region to test an intelligent, dynamic route-planning system using GPS traffic information; testing of special aerodynamic components and vehicles in the U.K., Netherlands and Germany; ongoing pilot projects with hybrid vehicles in the U.K., Germany and Japan; and testing of electric vehicles in mail, parcel and express businesses.

The company operates more than 3,000 “non-conventional vehicles powered by alternative fuels or featuring modifications for improved fuel-efficiency” worldwide.

ELECTRIC CHARGE

The Manhattan piece of the puzzle is the use of the Ford Transit Connect Electric. The van is powered by Azure Dynamics' electric powertrain with an expected vehicle range of 80 mi. on a single charge. According to Aufgebauer, DHL is seeing ranges approaching 70 mi. at this point, but he points out that weather changes as well as the heavy traffic typical of Manhattan's streets have created early challenges as the company gets used to the vehicles. “We're still hashing out some of the challenges, such as range,” he says, adding that DHL has been working closely with Azure to iron out any issues that have arisen. “We're happy overall [with the vehicles' performance].”

Overall vehicle range has not been an issue for the fleet, which also did not have to adjust routes to accommodate the vans. According to Aufgebauer, 90% of DHL's Manhattan routes are less than 60 mi. The Transit Connect Electric is also expected to reduce maintenance costs, Aufgebauer points out. The vehicles require no oil changes, produce no emissions, and reduce noise — all wins for DHL in its environmental quest.

Previously, DHL operated only Sprinters and step vans in Manhattan, which at times created maneuverability issues along the crowded city streets. “The [step vans] are hard to maneuver in Manhattan,” Aufgebauer points out. “The Transit Connect Electric has good capacity, and it is easier to maneuver.”

RETROFIT DECISION

Also as part of its greening of the Manhattan fleet, DHL made the decision to retrofit 50 Ford E-450 vans with Azure Dynamics' Balance Hybrid Electric vehicle system. The retrofit, which retained the vehicles' 5.7L gas engine, is expected to improve fuel efficiency 40% and cut emissions about 30%.

“There were other options, but we quickly came to the conclusion that if we were going to retrofit, there were huge benefits to have a ‘one-stop solution,’” Aufgebauer says. “The ability to have that one-stop shop, plus the process and commitment from Azure” was convincing.

“We have a very good working relationship with Azure,” he adds.

DHL keeps its vehicles 10-12 years, and that factored into the retrofit decision. “All the vehicles, the ages were different, but they were all at the beginning of their lifecycle,” Aufgebauer says. “But we don't believe [the retrofitting] will extend their [lifecycle] as there are so many other factors involved.” He does expect a return on investment to be in the five-year range for the vehicles, primarily due to fuel savings and lower maintenance costs.

While it's too early to make any conclusions about the pilot program, Aufgebauer says DHL is extremely happy with the performance so far.

COMPANY-WIDE

“Generally, absolutely,” he says about the company's reaction. “DHL is driving this image of being environmentally friendly, so we're using the trucks for [public relations], and we're using them on the streets. Each truck has the GoGreen logo on the side of it…we've gotten so many comments just from people on the streets.”

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