Is electricity a fuel? Sure, even if we call it “power.” Electricity itself is far cheaper than any petroleum or gaseous fuel, and the motors it powers have many advantages for propulsion – high efficiency, tremendous torque, quietness and cleanliness, at least in the vehicle itself.
The big limitation with electric cars and trucks is range, which is restricted by battery capacity. Various types of lithium-ion batteries, so far the best kind for these applications, deliver 75 to 100 miles of operation, which is enough for many city routes. However, batteries remain expensive, driving up the vehicles’ cost. Prices for commercial electric trucks can be twice that of conventionally driven versions, but very low maintenance requirements and negligible downtime for electric vehicles, or EVs, can pay for them in time.
Not many battery electric trucks have been sold in the U.S., but low-volume manufacturers have been hanging on. Among them is Smith Electric, maker of the Newton and Edison trucks, which recently shut down its plant in Kansas City, Mo. Its CEO, Bryan Hansel, called it a “pause,” and said he will soon announce new financial backing and resumption of production.
Assembly will be more efficient and a Generation III design will improve the trucks. Plans for other plants that will support municipally backed acquisitions in Chicago and New York City are likewise on hold, but will eventually open, he said.
Yet fleets that are using EVs are usually enthusiastic about them, for several reasons: low operating costs, ability to run into closed loading/unloading areas, and the “green” image, which resonates with many customers.
EVs are ideal for city deliveries, managers say, and their batteries are easily recharged while the trucks are parked overnight. Bosses also relate that drivers love them because they’re quiet and relaxing to drive and they’re fast. Fast is what I’ve found with almost every electric truck I’ve driven. Here are two more, sampled during the National Truck Equipment Association’s Work Truck Show in March.
Zenith Electric Cargo Van
Think the Zenith looks like a new Fiat-based Ram Promaster cargo van? That’s because it is a Promaster, converted to electric drive. Zenith Motors, located in northern Kentucky across the river from Cincinnati, acquires the trucks from Chrysler, pulls out their gasoline powertrains and installs its own electric drivetrain. A Zenith remains front-wheel drive and retains the low floor and wide doors that make the Promaster easy to load and unload.
The van displayed at the NTEA show was a 250 model with a 2,500-pound payload capacity (a 350 model with a 3,000-pound capacity is also available, as is a passenger version). Most interior appointments and controls are as Ram designed and made them, except Zenith yanked out a stubby shift lever from the dashboard and replaced it with a panel of pushbuttons labeled P, R, N and D.
Push D for Drive and hang on, because the 180-horsepower, 250-pound-foot motor sets the truck into motion right away. There was a soft whirring as we accelerated and a quieter hum when I backed my foot from the go-pedal and regeneration began. This of course turns the motor into a generator, sending juice to the batteries and extending the range. That range is 100 miles or more, according to the company.
Several hotels are now using the Zenith passenger vans, and drivers plug them in between runs so that advertised range hasn’t really been tested, said Christine Smith, Zenith’s vice president of sales and marketing. She was along for the ride in downtown Indianapolis. The cargo compartment was empty, but I imagine the electric drivetrain would authoritatively move a load.
Smith pointed out that what looks like a tachometer, next to the speedometer, was actually an ammeter that showed how many amperes were being drawn by the motor. The needle went to 270 amps, and I managed to peg it once or twice during fast getaways from traffic lights.
Other trucks and cars quickly receded in our mirrors, their drivers maybe not believing that a cargo van could blow their doors off (or maybe not caring). A wise Zenith driver will try to keep the ammeter’s needle from swinging too far, because the fewer amps he uses, the farther the truck will go.
The prescribed route for the NTEA’s Green Truck ride-and-drive was like going around a long block – about a mile and a half. It was sufficient to show that the Zenith makes serious power, has fairly serious cargo-carrying abilities and is a well-finished and pleasant van to drive.
Boulder Electric Vehicle
Odd yet purposeful in appearance, the Boulder is a walk-in delivery van (designated DV) that also comes as cab-and-chassis versions with a flatbed (designated FB) or service body (SB). Or customers can buy a bare chassis and mount other bodies. The one at the NTEA show was an FB-500 with a stake-side flatbed behind its long cab with a 4,000-pound payload. A longer-wheelbase 1000 series can carry up to 6,500 pounds. Lightweight composite panels are used throughout, including for the alternating-current motor.
The bulbous cab, designed and made by Boulder in its Colorado plant, is smoothly rounded for easy air flow, the company says. The driver sits relatively close to the big windshield for good outward visibility that’s aided by huge side glass. But he’s slightly ahead of the sliding side doors, so to exit the truck he has to pivot to the right- or left-rear. I found it a little awkward, but a tall ceiling made it easier, and most guys would get accustomed to it pretty quickly. In the cab’s rear there’s room for at least two passengers.
Bryan Bliss, vice president of sales, showed me how to operate the truck. A rotary switch on the dash lets the driver choose R, N or D; there’s no P, so a handbrake is used for parking. When in Drive, the Boulder was no rock. It scooted more quickly than its bulky cab would suggest, enough to easily beat out other traffic from a standstill (there I go again). There was no load aboard, but I’m guessing the motor would labor less hard than a gasoline or diesel engine if the flatbed were loaded to the gills.
That motor is supplied by Borg Warner and makes 134 continuous horsepower and 188 peak horsepower. Maximum torque is claimed to be 664 pounds-feet. The lithium iron phosphate batteries are “the safest and most reliable of all the different lithium technologies, with a life span of 3,000 cycles or more and only one-third of the weight compared to lead-acid batteries,” the company’s website says. They are carried below the floor and protected by a composite enclosure.