Electric Trucks Before Electric Cars?
Published in: The New York Times
By: MATTHEW L. WALD
WASHINGTON – The biggest thing at the Washington Auto Show – quite literally – is a 22,000-pound electric truck. Two, actually. They have been built by Smith Electric Vehicles, an established British brand. The American company, a licensee based in Kansas City, Mo., began deliveries in December.
The buzz these days is about electric cars, like General Motors plug-in hybrid Volt or Nissans all-electric Leaf, but electric trucks might be closer to ready for prime time, because in some ways it is easier to electrify a big vehicle than a small one. The trucks on display (one indoors, one outside along the curb) have been painted for service as Staples and Frito-Lay delivery trucks. Both companies can easily use trucks with a range of only 100 miles or so, which is far less than most private car owners demand.
And trucks, as opposed to cars, can overcome one of the inherent limitations of batteries, the balance between energy and power. Energy means the amount of work that a battery can store, and power means how fast the battery can deliver that energy; most batteries do one much better than the other. Several manufacturers build batteries with enough energy to move a vehicle many miles, but it is delivered so slowly that acceleration can be painful.
Delivery trucks, which require many batteries to get adequate range, do not have to deliver lightning fast starts. The Frito-Lay truck, in a road test, proved this. With the accelerator pedal floored, the truck moved as fast as city traffic demanded. It ran like, well, a truck.
Smith is offering the truck in 12,000-, 22,000- and 26,000-pounds versions. The batteries are attached to the frame rails, and the company adds a metal skirt to cover them. A port on the passenger side accepts a cable that delivers 220 volts, the voltage used for a clothes dryer. Charging time is eight hours, which fits well into a single-shift operation, said Bryan L. Hansel, chief executive for Smith in the United States.
Smith imports truck bodies from the Czech Republic that were intended for diesel trucks, and builds them at the rate of two a week in a plant in Kansas City, assembling battery packs from cells built by Valence Technology, a company based in Austin, Tex. Smith is expecting a grant of at least $10 million from the Energy Department under the stimulus program, which would allow it to build at least 200 more trucks, Mr. Hansel said. The trucks sell for $100,000 to $150,000, depending on size and number of batteries, but the stimulus money would reduce the price.
Joseph H. Gold, a fleet manager at Frito-Lay, said his company was buying 15 of the trucks, to be split among New York; Columbus, Ohio; and Dallas. The New York State Energy Research and Development Agency is helping to pay for them, he said.
The trucks will certainly cost the company more up front, said Mr. Gold. But trucks in this size category go only seven or eight miles per gallon of diesel fuel, and that comes to about 50 cents a mile; the Smith truck will go close to mile on a kilowatt-hour, which costs on average about 11 cents but can be bought at night for less.