Rolf Lockwood

Rolf Lockwood

You could be forgiven for thinking that the electric hybrid powertrain idea, like other alternative fuel efforts, had all but died in the onslaught of cheap natural gas. Count me among the reluctant doubters. The hybrid market was injured, yes, for sure. But definitely not dead, if one of the world’s biggest fleets has anything to do with it.

With a new twist engineered by giant United Parcel Service and the tiny Cincinnati-based Workhorse Group, once a Navistar property, the electric hybrid is looking better than it has in quite some time. They might just have something here, if not for over-the-road fleets, then certainly for smaller trucks in local work. In this case the internal combustion engine (ICE) is really just a gen-set.

UPS announced recently that it was updating 125 E-Gen hybrid electric package vans that it bought from Workhorse last September, as part of the company’s broader Rolling Laboratory approach to alternative fuels and drivetrains. The trucks will be deployed in Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Nevada, Ohio, and Texas later this year.  

A compact, quiet 2-cylinder ICE replaces what was originally a 4-cylinder motor to extend the van’s range, improve performance, and raise fuel efficiency. Producing only 25 hp, the engine’s displacement is just 39 cubic inches. The updated trucks deliver significant fuel economy equivalency gains – up to four times better than a conventional gasoline-powered vehicle, it’s claimed. The original 4-banger offered a 10% to 15% improvement over previous hybrid designs. The ICE can run on gasoline, propane, or natural gas, with a range of at least 50 to 60 miles per day.

The E-Gen truck is powered by the electric motor when rolling, but when stopped and shifted into Park, the small ICE is turned on automatically to function as a generator and recharge the battery. Among the user benefits is far lower purchase cost compared to an all-electric system, and cold-weather operations aren’t affected. As well, battery life is extended because the system’s management software keeps its state of charge well within the optimal range.

UPS sees these package vans as “a bridge to the delivery trucks of tomorrow.”

They were purchased under its commitment to log 1 billion miles with alternative fuel and advanced technology vehicles by the end of 2017. They were at 505 million miles in 2014, so this is not a little ambitious.

Interestingly, the first UPS foray into alternative-fuel vehicles was with a fleet of electric vehicles that operated in New York City in the 1930s.

Even more interestingly, Workhorse sees hyper-efficient delivery trucks like its E-Gen hybrid working in concert with drones. In fact it’s developed the HorseFly (excellent name!) line of all-weather drones. Able to carry about 10 pounds of cargo, they would be deployed by the delivery van driver to handle the last stretch of a package’s trip while he continues with deliveries on the main route. Tests are ongoing.

Pallets of automotive parts aren’t likely to be “droned” into a Ford or Chrysler plant any time soon, but it seems inevitable in the package world.

If you believe, as I do, that electric is the way to go for a great many local and regional hauling and work applications, then this cheaper route to electric power should look pretty interesting.