Friday, July 31, 2009

Electric Trucking

In my consulting career, I was not always an environmental professional - I spent a lot of time on supply chain consulting and automation, including logistics. In those days, the issues of efficiency were all about cost reduction and waste elimination. The icons of the industry were the processes that folks like UPS and FedEx put in place - things like planning delivery truck routes with all right turns (saves gas, you don't wait at red lights as much), decisions on whether to keep engines running when leaving trucks (you burn extra fuel starting up), skylight truck ceiling panels (don't have to have lights inside the truck then), etc.

There was one thing we were missing back then - we never challenged the basic technology of the forklifts, trucks, ships, and aircraft we were analyzing. Now, one US company has done just that - and given us the electric urban delivery truck ( 100 mile range, 50 mph top speed, payload of over 16,000 pounds - and an operating cost that is about 20% of diesel trucks. Sounds good on the user's end, but I have reservations about the cost numbers - I'm not sure if they include the full life-cycle cost (including battery and motor manufacturing and disposal) or not. Also, the manufacturing company is taking advantage of government programs and getting US economic stimulus funds to accomplish what they do.

It's a big splash - delivery of the first six trucks in front of the US Capitol; PR frenzies; and everyone involved wants this to look good. The US government wants it to look good because it shows stimulus at work and progress. The manufacturer wants it to look good because it makes them look good. The buyers want it to look good because they invested in these trucks and want the payback of the extra publicity. And, frankly, I want it to not just look good but be good - because I would like to see an electric vehicle solution that truly works from all sustainability angles. Unfortunately no one has broached the full-life-cycle sustainability aspect - and since no one has, I suspect it isn't there, particularly because of the emphasis in the articles about the company using existing battery technology. Existing battery technology is terrible to the environment - both in the manufacturing and in the disposal stages.

No one has broached the issue of production capacity, either - or the issues of support infrastructure (these things have to be charged up somehow, somewhere, and not by plugging in to a household plug), servicing (try taking an electric truck to your regular mechanic), or the rest of the myriad of commercial vehicle implementation issues that need grappling with. And, while the cost of operation has been trumpeted, the cost of acquisition has not - of course, the trucks having a higher list price compared to diesel options would not be surprising. All in all, a lot of issues have been left untouched - and they are ones that should be touched on in detail by anyone considering acquisition and implementation of these vehicles.

The article does say that the US government allocated $2B to electric vehicle battery research stimulus - so maybe we'll see some improvements in all this before too long. But, if all we spend the money on is a productization of technologies deployed in Europe (as the article states as the main strategy for the company that makes the electric trucks) then I fear the money will have been applied to achieve less than optimal (let alone spectacular) results. It is very disappointing that everyone seems to be spending more time making progress look like it is happening instead of making it happen.

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