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.

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  • tw8s

    “…draw tens of thousands of volts simultaneously…” Really??
    It is not just the legacy mechanics who are having trouble with the ‘new fangled notions’. A little brushing up on basic electricity principles by the writers and editorial staff is needed.

  • Gerald Shields

    Hate to say this, but I think with electric vechicles, today’s mechanics might benefit from attending electrician’s courses at your nearest community colleges. Does anyone agree with this assesment?

  • Bryce

    THese are pretty cool, but I am not surprised that they have problems with the mechanics and even the management not knowing really what to do with this new beast. Before they sell them these things, they should have a mandatory info session of some sort so they don’t destroy the machines before they pay for themselves in gas savings.

  • Bryce

    o yea, a little learning never hurt anyone. That way they could go on and continue to provide their questionable service into the next age of the automobile. Though specialized places that don’t scam u being widespread (think Geek Squad for cars) would be awesome instead of having to rely on sometimes questionable independent mechanics.

    On another note, I just thought, what happens when all those smog stations are put out of business by the electric car…..the smog lobby????????

  • Jon

    Electrician courses at local college would be minimally helpful to automotive mechanics. The systems in vehicles are highly specialized.

    There are dedicated factory training courses for hybrid and electric vehicles. These are factory courses available primary for factory mechanics, not independent mechanics. Fleet mechanics I presume would have access to such courses however. That exclusivity is changing, I know of some independent mechanics (automotive electricians actually) attending Ford’s “hybrid escape” training program. Which they describe as very extensive but still predominantly only applicable to the Ford Escape, not to a Prius for example.

    The problem is more than just training however as most shops are not equipped with the tools or safety equipment necessary for working on high voltage electrical systems. That later part is changing. It’s not too unlike the years it took switching between carburetors and fuel injection, from principally mechanical systems to principally electronic systems.

  • Bryce

    hmm, very interesting. I guess that means we will be having some sort of car version of Geek Squad……………it’s ok, use us. : ) I love that slogan.

  • Gandalf

    It would not surprise me to find that some of the old-time fuelies working at the fleet garages delight at sabotaging these new-fangled electric vehicles. There’s nothing like the smell of diesel in the morning.

  • Art

    These trucks should come to the USA. Actually, believe or not, New York City for years in the early 1900s had commercial electric truck delivery. Imagine how much gas we as a nation would save if we can have trucks deliver our goods through this system. Perhaps these trucks would help with our current economic troubles and oil crisis.

  • KMCoates

    From LA Business Journal 7/15/2008:
    Shares of Enova Systems Inc. fell after the company said it expect to expects orders for its electric vehicle drive systems from a major customer in the United Kingdom to drop “significantly” this year and next.
    Ennova, based in Torrance, had expected to supply Tanfield Group Plc with at least 1,000 drive units in 2008, but only 144 have been delivered so far this year, the company said in a Tuesday news release.
    The component maker had forecast supplying as many as 3,000 units to the U.S. manufacturer next year.