It seems every time I turn around the past few weeks, I see something about how the demand for electric and hybrid vehicles is not meeting expectations.
Electric trucks have a long history, as you can see from this photo dating to 1912. But is recent interest being eclipsed by natural gas? (Photo courtesy
Electric trucks have a long history, as you can see from this photo dating to 1912. But is recent interest being eclipsed by natural gas? (Photo courtesy

I got an invitation to a webinar about vehicle electrification trends that notes:

"With an influx of battery, fuel cell, and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles slated for the next five years (29 are expected to be produced and released), the low number of electric vehicle sales is becoming increasingly noticeable. Consumers hesitate to purchase electrified vehicles because of their high cost and infrastructure concerns."

Instead, many fleets are looking to natural gas as a "green" alternative that has a lower up-front cost and therefore faster return on investment.

At the Mid-America Trucking Show Fleet Forum in Louisville, Ky., in March, Sandeep Kar with research firm Frost & Sullivan noted that in a survey of 100 fleet managers, 56% of respondents were interested in natural gas. Two years ago, only 22% were.

However, 31% said natural gas was "not at all important" to them. Nearly a third said they would not consider it at all.

"Crazy Expensive"

That trend is evident in a recent story in the Kansas City Star,
"Electric truck subsidies keep the lights on."
The article focuses largely on Kansas-City based Smith Electric Vehicles, but it illustrates the trend:

"Sam Swearngin is a big fan of alternative-fuel vehicles, but he's recovering from sticker shock after buying an electric truck.

"The fleet manager for Kansas City's municipal government was in the market for a bucket truck similar to what electric utilities use to lift workers to fix power lines. A diesel bucket truck would have cost $132,000. One that used natural gas was priced at $182,000.

"The price of the electric truck bought from Smith Electric Vehicles of Kansas City was $330,000 - $198,000 more than the diesel version. Swearngin got a federal grant to cover the difference but is reluctant to buy another one until there's a big price drop.

"'They're crazy expensive,' he said. 'We can do better using natural gas trucks.'"

Incentives Needed

Frito-Lay, which accounted last year for more than half of Smith's truck-sale revenue, already has 167 of the trucks.

"You have to make the investment to help them evolve," Aurora Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for Frito-Lay, told the paper.

A recent study by Element Energy Ltd., a British alternative-energy research company, said large electric vans in 2030 would still be the most expensive alternative and need incentives to convince fleet managers to buy them, the Star reported.

The interest in natural gas is also evident in a recent move at Argonne National Laboratory. As we reported earlier this week, the Energy Department national laboratory that developed the battery technology for the Chevrolet Volt and other hybrid-electric vehicles now wants to expand the use of its facilities to include natural-gas vehicle testing.

The lab tested AT&T's fleet of natural gas vehicles for Clean Cities, a DOE program supporting efforts to decrease petroleum use in cities. Argonne says in the future, it would like to be known as the go-to place for natural-gas-vehicle testing.

Electric Avenue

That's not to say that electric trucks are dead, just that they're catching on more slowly than expected and they likely need government incentives to help with the high up-front costs.

Manufacturers are working on new battery technology to try to bring the cost of them down. A number of companies are continuing to put them into their delivery fleets. Earlier this year, MIT's Center for Transportation and Logistics released study findings showing that electric vehicles can cost 9% to 12% less to operate than diesel-powered trucks when used to make deliveries on a daily basis in large cities.

Some areas of the country are working to put in electric charging infrastructure; while it focuses mostly on passenger cars, there are some efforts that would help commercial fleets, as well.

One of those areas of the country is the Pacific Northwest, where they are building the "West Coast Electric Highway," a tri-state network of electric vehicle charging stations along Interstate 5.

The Oregon Department of Transportation is launching a $4 million new electric truck buyer incentive program. The Commercial Electric Truck Incentive Program will be offered in the form of $20,000 vouchers per eligible, all-electric vehicle over 10,000 pounds, regardless of manufacturer.

Shore Power and More

And there are ways to use electricity in trucking beyond full-electric trucks like the Smith Newton or the Navistar eStar. For instance, plug-in hybrid refrigeration units and auxiliary power units can take advantage of shore power, as we report in our June special fuel issue. (See "Electricity Gives Trucking Industry a Power Boost."

Interestingly, electric vehicles are hardly a new idea. As I wrote about in this blog last year, the Chicago-based Walker Vehicle Company made electric vehicles from the early 1900s until late 1941.

And while digging around in our archives in preparation for HDT's 90th anniversary issue in September, we discovered that one of the oldest issues in our archives has a story about electric trucks!

Updated 11 a.m. EDT 7/6/2012 to provide additional information and links.