I hear the heavy, rattling engines many times each day, moving past, and sometimes stopping at, my home office. FedEx, UPS, the US Postal Service, and even my community-supported agriculture service use those big, boxy delivery trucks (also referred to as vocational trucks or package trucks). They are ubiquitous urban denizens, they are driven relentlessly all day long, they make tons of stops, and spend much of their lives idling. All of these factors add up to make them major fuel hogs. But that’s starting to change, as a growing number of fleet owners, including, most recently, AT&T, are turning to alternative fuel and hybrid delivery trucks. Meanwhile, more truck makers are jumping onboard.
The EPA’s office of transportation and air quality and Eaton, makers of hydraulic systems for truck engines partnered with the United Parcel Service late last year to test a new hybrid technology designed through a collaboration between Eaton and the EPA’s fuel-emissions lab in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The system was designed to capitalize on how often delivery trucks start and stop during the course of a day. The motor converts pressure from the hydraulic fluid into rotating power for the wheels. It also stores energy from braking and uses it in acceleration.
In tests, the EPA found the vehicle used 40 to 50 percent less fuel than conventional diesel trucks while reducing carbon emissions by one third. Now, UPS is testing the truck (it is rolling seven of the prototype truck in cities across the country).
This is far from UPS’ first foray into new, more efficient truck technology, and in fact the company claims to have the largest private fleet of alternative fuel vehicles in its industry, with more than 2000 trucks that employ everything from compressed natural gas, liquefied natural gas, propane, electric, and hybrid electric vehicles. It has also tested hydrogen fuel cell trucks.
FedEx has also invested heavily in alternative fuel delivery trucks. Its claim to green glory is the largest fleet of hybrid-electric delivery vehicles in the U.S. But the US Postal Service has them both beat, with 43,000 alternative fuel vehicles – though most of these use not-exactly-cutting-edge E-85 ethanol.
AT&T just this week said it plans to spend $565 million over 10 years to replace or buy about 15,000 vehicles. About half (8,000) of these will be work vans or technician trucks running on compressed natural gas (CNG). The remaining vehicles will use hybrid (gas-electric and plug-ins) or other technology.
Ford is pegged to build the CNG rigs, while others will come from Toyota. International Truck makes a hybrid delivery truck too. But a start-up in Ann Arbor, Mich., called Azure Dynamics, has introduced a gas-electric hybrid delivery truck. Now, Azure hasn’t started from scratch. It uses Ford’s E450 truck chassis and 5.4-liter V8 engine (this is the building block for both busses and delivery trucks), and builds its hybrid system into that truck.
Popular Mechanics recently reviewed the Azure Dynamics offering. It wasn’t exactly glowing. “It was a rough, uncomfortable ride. The aluminum body shook and vibrated loudly, and gently modulating the brakes was impossible,” said the reviewer. “But it did return 11.9 mpg, which is about what you’d see with a much lighter full-size pickup or SUV driven in the same conditions.”
There is hope, therefore, that if Azure can figure out how to make its hybrid a smoother ride, it can then start attracting big customers, such as UPS and others, who are so active in testing alternative trucks to try to cut down on the huge costs associated with conventional delivery truck operation. Oh, Azure might need to figure out how to make the truck more affordable, too, since it’s currently clocking in at $70,000 ($50,000 for the chassis and hybrid system plus another $20,000 for the body), according to Popular Mechanics. Its greatest hope for lowering price will be to pump up production to around 2000 trucks a year. That’s a tough call, given that 2000 is also the total number of alternative fuel trucks UPS uses in its entire fleet.