Electric Truck Makers Grapple With the Real World
As GM learned with the EV1, nothing about electric cars is quite as simple as it may seem at first glance. As the lessons of the EV1 are still being passionately debated, a new wave of electric trucks are teaching their manufacturers some lessons as well.
Why trucks? As it happens, urban delivery trucks offer ideal “duty cycles” for electrification. They cover a consistent and predictable daily mileage (100 miles or less), and they return to base every night. That allows the cost of high-voltage charging stations to be concentrated in one central location.
Britons aged 40 or more likely still recall the electric 3-wheeled milk floats that delivered bottles daily. The UK’s Smith Electric Vehicles, which made them, is about to launch mid- and large-size electric delivery trucks into the US market. It will be closely followed by a new company, Modec Ltd. Private fleets and utilities have committed to major orders from each.
But in pilot tests, Modec’s William Doelle told us, the truck makers have learned some hard lessons. His cheerful and often humorous manner belied some of the hard knocks Modec took en route to understanding how to work with hidebound fleet operators for whom anything beyond 12 Volts is foreign territory.
He expanded on several lessons learned to date in further discussions following an engaging and often humorous presentation at a conference, Developing the Market and Infrastructure for Electric and Plug-In Hybrid Vehicles held in late May outside Detroit.
Among the lessons he shared:
- Do not trust the electricians at your fleet base! Modec had to replace a $6,000 high-voltage charger—requiring it to be air-freighted from the UK—when the man he called “Sparky” hung it on an outdoor chain-link fence, exposed to the elements, without considering that tropical rainstorms might threaten to a 300-Volt device with no weather shielding.
- Never let the fleet’s mechanics work on any of the high-voltage components in your vehicles, since they have no awareness of anything over 12 Volts. Modec has learned simply to swap out all electrical parts, and do any repairs or maintenance in its own shops.
- Those same fleet mechanics have zero understanding of safe electrical practice. Doelle cited a mechanic at an unnamed fleet who cheerfully wired a 12V cab-roof light into the nearest electric cable—which happened to be connected to the vehicle’s high-voltage controller.
- You must create clear, explicit, and well-illustrated owners and maintenance manuals that cover every possible contingency (and the impossible ones too). His example here was the company that added its own cargo body, behind the standard cab—completely covering the charging port. Modec’s manuals now have a large diagram showing just what can and cannot be covered by any bodywork.
- It will always take much longer to build your charging infrastructure, and cost far more, than you imagine. He suggested that a new central site for your fleet should be evaluated based on whether the local utility can actually deliver a new high-voltage supply lines in weeks—versus months or years.
Both Smith and Modec plan to manufacture up to 10,000 trucks a year in the US, to avoid the notorious “chicken tax”—an import duty of 25 percent levied for 45 years now on imported light- and medium-duty commercial vehicles. The tax stems from a trade dispute over US exports of frozen chickens, a brand-new concept in the 1960s, to Europe. (For more information, google “chicken tax”.)
Their trucks differ, however, in that Smith adapts existing Ford commercial vehicles—their Ampere is the long-wheelbase version of Ford’s upcoming Transit Connect small van, and their Faraday II is based on Ford’s massive F-650—whereas Modec has designed its range of electric trucks from the ground up.
In the end, Doelle was philosophical about the challenges he described. They’re an inevitable part of opening a new market, he said. He expects that in time, fleet managers will no longer blink at the notion that they need to locate their bases where they can draw tens of thousands of volts simultaneously to recharge dozens of trucks overnight.
But until then, he does have some great stories.