A truck for every occasion

Alternative fuels are going mainstream, and your job just got harder

Last month I talked to a fleet manager who’s running 14 plug-in electric trucks, all Class 5 box trucks making deliveries to company retail stores. And he’s so enthusiastic about them that he envisions converting the entire 54-truck fleet to EVs.

His reasoning is sound. His fleet operates in one of the most densely populated areas of the country, New York City, which means individual routes average only between 30 and 40 mi. That’s well within the range of today’s battery-powered commercial EVs and actually allows the fleet to run two back-to-back shifts. And since the fleet’s trucks return to a central terminal every night and sit for about eight hours, they can easily be plugged in for a recharge.

Serving retail stores in NYC usually requires curbside unloading, most often in locations surrounded by residential buildings. The quiet electric truck and its zero emissions are a very public demonstration of how the company “respects the city,” according to the fleet manager. That makes EV trucks good for the retail chain’s image.

But they’re also good for business, he says. While the fleet doesn’t have enough miles on the trucks (which it leases) to have reliable cost per mile data, it does know that it’s paying 75% less for electricity than for the diesel to run its other trucks. Given expectations for lower maintenance costs without a complex diesel engine or multispeed transmission, the fleet estimates it will break even in the EV vs. diesel comparison with diesel fuel at $4/gal. Any price increase over that will give the EVs an upside.

But that doesn’t make plug-in trucks right for everyone, or even right for every city delivery fleet. Today’s choices for powering commercial vehicles include a wide range of technologies, each with its own distinct advantages and disadvantages. Hybrid diesel electric is well suited to trucks that run moderately long routes with frequent stops that can capture electrical power through regeneration. Natural gas will fit a number of truck applications as long as you understand range limitations, fueling options and the torque characteristics of a natural gas engine. Propane also has its adherents who value ready access to the fuel and simple conversion technology.

Of course, diesel still retains all of the operational strengths that made it the only practical fuel for trucks for so many years. And now with new emissions systems, it also qualifies as a very clean mobile power source. Gasoline, which all but faded as a commercial truck fuel over the last few decades, is also making a credible comeback based on lower initial cost for the engine and new fuel systems that offer much improved fuel economy.

Only a few years ago, choosing an alternative to diesel required compromises, usually unacceptable ones involving cost, efficiency, practicality or some combination of all three. That’s quickly becoming history as volumes increase for these former alternatives and they start to move into the realm of good business.

But be careful. Proponents for each are enthusiastic, sometimes unrealistically so. Once your choice was simple—pick the appropriate class of truck, a suitable diesel engine and fit it with the right body or hook it up to the trailer that suited your needs. Today, there are no easy choices. Instead, you have to carefully weigh a variety of variables ranging from energy price predictions to local fire codes when you go to spec the right truck for your particular application.

It’s always great to have choices. Just make sure you do your homework when it comes to alternative fuels.

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