Down a glowing highway

Aug. 1, 2013

Electric drive may be finding a home alongside other alternative fuels in trucking today. But the path electric trucks have traveled from their origins roughly a century ago has been a long and winding road—with occasional detours every few decades to near oblivion.

Writing in The New York Times for Oct. 10, 1915, A. Jackson Marshall, secretary of the Electric Vehicle Assn. of America, stated that “the electric vehicle is especially adapted to house-to-house delivery and other transportation requirements demanding frequent stops.”

The kicker is Marshall was not praising electric drive over gasoline or diesel or even steam power. Nope. He was talking about electric’s advantage over actual—on-the-hoof, that is—horse power.

“Our investigations confirmed our opinion that in no other delivery service can the electric be applied to better advantage than in laundry work,” Marshall declared in his piece.

Beating Horses

He then advised how well the running of 18 electric-drive “delivery wagons” was going for Brunswick Laundry, operated by one Henry Sieminski of Jersey City, NJ.

Sieminski told Marshall that he was “fully convinced that the electric is the very best thing for house-to-house delivery. We bought our first electric three years ago, and it gave such excellent results that when time came to enlarge our equipment, I decided to dispose of our horses and wagons and buy electrics.

“The eighteen electrics have not only done the work of the forty horses which I formerly owned,” he related, “but also take care of [an] unusually heavy increase in business.”

Sieminski went on to discuss how what is now referred to as “total cost of ownership” favored the electrics over the horses. His equation included no longer having to pay “a score of bills” for such items as harnesses, feed, horseshoeing, veterinary services, wagon repairs, and even blankets.

Also, he pointed out that after the switch, the laundry was employing just one mechanic—in place of three stablemen—who was charged both with maintaining the electric drives and the laundry’s own stationary electric motors.

Playing a tune that’s very familiar in today’s green business climate, Sieminski observed that “the sure road to success in a business of this kind is conservation of energy and utilization of by-products.”

He explained that “as in most large laundries where everything is run by electricity, we generate our own power. We charge our electric vehicles [nightly] with the current generated for heating the tanks of [laundry] water [for the next day’s washing]...I consider the electricity with which we charge our [wagon] batteries a by-product,” Sieminski stated.

As for cost per mile, Sieminski reported that “at an average of twenty-five miles per day and a current cost of $4 per month, the current cost per mile is about six-tenths of a cent.”

But it got even better: “… figuring 900 [laundry] bundles delivered per week, the energy cost of each bundle delivered is about one-one hundredth of 1 cent. In other words, the current consumed in delivering 100 bundles costs about 1 cent. This is reducing economy to well-nigh the irreducible minimum,” Sieminski summed up.

Back in 1960, Saturday Evening Post author J.C. Furnas wrote that, in his estimation anyway, “electrics are coming back…With streamlined bodies and updated innards, new electric trucks and passenger cars are rolling now in Atlantic City, Lansing, Detroit, Cleveland and Spokane, and in several towns in France and England.”

He reported that these new electrics were all being “manufactured by small firms in small quantities. The big automobile companies, armed with research data on every imaginable power source—solar, atomic, gas turbine, you name it—still prefer the internal-combustion engine. But battery manufacturers and electric-power companies, eager to expand sales, are taking this projected revival seriously.”

Furnas advised that one electric utility, the Atlantic City Electric Co., working on development of electric vehicles, had conducted a study of electric trucks in England, “where close to 30,000 of them are making many-stop deliveries of milk, bakery goods, laundry, sacked coal, and so on.”

He noted that English studies showed that “the electric’s quicker handling and acceleration enable it to cover go-stop-go routes at higher average speed than gas trucks or horse-carts. Besides, they don’t waste gas idling during the delivery stop.”

What Goes Around

The author was quick to point out that some companies “realizing these virtues, have never abandoned electrics. The United Parcel Service still runs seventy of them as ‘little warehouses on wheels’ out of its mid-Manhattan loading depot, whence routes are short, and stops at apartment houses long. U.P.S.’s indoor, underground loading docks make the absence of exhaust fumes particularly desirable.”

Another example Furnas gave was Brunswick Laundry (yes, the very same one profiled in print 45 years before), which he said was keeping “delivery costs down with twenty-eight electrics on runs of less than thirty-five miles a day. Some are still rolling with the same electric motors, although frequently reconditioned, after forty-eight years of service.”

From there, Furnas stated that a revival of electric-truck manufacturing was truly under way.

“Light experimental models, fathered by Gould-National Batteries Inc., have been added to the Brunswick Laundry fleet and are doing well for the Blanding Milk Company of Greenville, Michigan. Since February 1959, Westinghouse Electric has run a natty Gould-National truck out of its East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, plant up and down the hilly local streets on short-range errands previously assigned to station wagons…

“The Warren Sanitary Dairy Company of Warren, Ohio, is keen on its new electric delivery truck from the Cleveland Vehicle Company, designed to handle a fifty-mile route with 200 pay stops…Cleveland Vehicle already has thirty-seven of its trucks on daily delivery chores, mostly in Ohio. The United States Post Office is testing one for pick-up work in Maryland.”

Contending that “certainly speed and electric propulsion are not inconsistent,” Furnas remarked that a Captain Grimes of Electric Storage Battery “talks expressway-style performance—65 to 70 mph, 500-mile range—for electrics without trolleys [that is, ones not hooked up to overhead wires].

“The power source he has in mind is…the ‘fuel cell’—a device producing electricity directly out of certain fuels, far more efficiently than the indirect methods of running generators with steam plants or diesel engines,” he continued. And in Furnas’s view, the “cheap power” that would be obtained from deploying fuel cells “would in itself stimulate development of electric vehicles.”

UPS, which was lauded by Furnas for still running electric vehicles in 1960, continues to this day to explore electric power among numerous alternatively fueled vehicles it is running, testing or developing.

The package giant recently celebrated its electric past with an intriguing blog post by company archivist Jill Swiecichowski. While “looking for something else” in the UPS Archives, she came across a document from 1933 that sought funds for three new “Gould Batteries for two ton Walker Electric Trucks.” The batteries were to replace three “very old and almost useless” batteries in the company’s “package cars” serving New York City.

“The interesting thing about this document, Swiecichowski pointed out, “is that it’s the earliest known record of UPS having electric vehicles, or alternative fuel vehicles [of any sort], and reveals that UPS began using electric vehicles as early as 1933, or possibly even earlier.”

And she noted that in 1998—65 years after that battery-requisition order was put in—UPS introduced hybrid electric vehicles into its fleet. Proving that what goes around comes around—at least when it comes to going green electrically.

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