Beyond conventional trucks

More and more manufacturers have begun to develop and improve electric vehicle (EV) technology, but adoption of this newly emerging market is in its infancy. One company, FedEx, has begun a pilot program to test this new technology. The transportation logistics vehicle corporation is in the process of putting the International eStar electric vehicle through its paces in select areas.

The eStar is a Class 2c-3 electric truck - the first in its category – that has a range of 100 miles per charge. It can be plugged in and fully recharged within six to eight hours.

Keshav Sondhi, chief engineer for global vehicles for FedEx, manages the Electrical Vehicles segment for the company. He suggests the process of implementing EVs be done in two steps.

“Identify the best truck, and find the most repeatable and responsible (efficient) way of charging these trucks,” he explains. “Any fleet trying to go mainstream would have to at least address those two concerns.”

WHY ELECTRIC

One reason a fleet would want to go through the process of implementing electric vehicles is that electric vehicle drivetrains are much more efficient than other conventional drivetrains, says Sondhi.

“If you look at how energy can be recovered out of a stored means, like a battery, and then transferred to the wheels, an electric drivetrain is one of the most efficient drivetrains.”

Another clear advantage is zero tailpipe emissions, especially while driving urban routes.

“Inner-city routes, even with CNG, will still have some sort of emissions,” he says. “But with electric vehicles, the emissions is basically zero.”

An additional advantage of the adoption EV technology is that it helps reduce dependence on crude oil by displacing oil use with the use of using electricity. Electric technology offers fleets the ability to power their vehicles through ‘multiple sources,’ instead of relying heavily on one source of fuel, notes Sondhi.

OTHER TECHNOLOGIES

For all of these reasons, FedEx decided to move ahead with testing electric vehicles, among other alternate fuel sources.

FedEx first visited the idea of alternate fuels to power their vehicles in the mid-1990s. Among other technologies, the company looked into electric vehicles with lead-acid batteries and eventually moving to nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries, until testing was stalled.

It wasn’t until 2007 when FedEx began revisiting all-electric vehicles because of the development of lithium-ion battery technology.

After introducing electric vehicles to select fleets in their London markets in 2008, the company began a pilot program in the Los Angeles area. With its pilot program, FedEx has the opportunity to test EV vehicles wherever suitable, usually sticking to shorter, urban routes.

PROPER TRAINING

FedEx has developed a regular maintenance program in order to handle maintenance and repairs for its electric vehicles.

Its technicians are trained through the EV manufacturers to handle the high voltages of EV systems, Sondhi says. “Rather than just a 12-volt system, you’re now dealing with 300 volts, depending on the manufacturer.”

Along with education on handling these high-voltage systems, he explains repairs will move away from the mechanical side to an emphasis on fully electrical systems. “There will be more electro-mechanical systems. We won’t be changing a lot of fluids, because these are all electric motors.”

RIGHT SIZE

FedEx began its domestic pilot program in L.A. with the rollout of 19 International eStar electric vehicles. Sondhi says the plan is to introduce another set of pilot vehicles in a different market very soon.

“What we’re specifically looking at targeting right now is the pick-up and delivery vehicle segment, which is typically the Class 3 to 4 segments,” he notes.

Because of the urban routes, the company needs to determine the size of the vehicle they’d like to use. A truck which has a longer mileage range isn’t necessarily always the best option.

By way of example, Sondhi says FedEx’s pick-up and delivery vehicles that operate in Manhattan typically only operate about 20 miles per day. Buying a truck with a 100-mile range would be a very costly proposition because the longer an EV’s range, and thus its battery capacity, the more expensive the vehicle purchase price.

There are also different battery charge characteristics to consider, he adds. A 50-mile EV truck might require a 3- to 4-hour recharge while a 100-mile truck might need 8 hours.

Another important consideration in the choice of an EV, says Sondhi, is factoring in vehicle auxiliary loads as part of the mileage. For instance, if FedEx buys a 100-mile truck, it will put the vehicle on a route that does not exceed 50 miles a day because total driving distance is also dependent upon the types of auxiliary loads that are added. If the truck’s heater and wipers are used for long periods of time, the range will be reduced.

RECHARGE REQUIREMENTS

Once a fleet finds an electric vehicle to suit its needs, it should then figure out how to charge those vehicles repeatedly and efficiently.

Electrification of transportation is a major challenge, says Sondhi, and it needs to be done in a responsible manner, taking into consideration the local infrastructure. Recharging electric vehicles now requires tapping into the same electrical grid (an interconnected network for delivering electricity from suppliers to consumers) that is already being used by both businesses and households.

Sondhi stresses the importance of finding a way to recharge electric vehicles in a responsible manner.

“Electrification of transportation is beyond the truck. Before anyone does this at a mass scale and add depots, we need to work to understand that local infrastructure.”

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