Commercial EV news has taken a back seat of late, with all of the hype surrounding the Chevy Volt, the Nissan Leaf, and other recent additions to the consumer market. However, it is almost certain that most of the growth in the adoption of electric vehicles will come from fleet buyers, especially those with large numbers of delivery vehicles. There is good reason for this: EVs help fleet managers control their costs, while, at the same time, providing numerous additional benefits, such as zero pollution, lower noise, and less downtime due to maintenance. This is why a large number of companies are attempting to capture a piece of this lucrative market.
One of these is Navistar International Corporation, whose affiliates produce, among other things, International® brand trucks. Navistar recently signed a joint venture with Modec Limited of the UK to create the Navistar-Modec EV Alliance. The joint venture will produce Class 2c-3 all-electric commercial trucks for sale in North, Central and South America.
The first product of this joint venture is the eStar all-electric commercial truck, which, according to Navistar, is a “purpose-built” vehicle, designed from the ground up to operate on electric power. The eStar can achieve a range of 100 miles on a full charge, while carrying up to a 4,000 pound payload, and has a number of other interesting features (read on to learn more).
As this Bloomberg Businessweek© article explains in greater depth, fleet managers love electric vehicles, and so do their drivers, “While commuters and vacationers may fret about so-called range anxiety…drivers of commercial delivery vehicles tend to follow the same route each day, so they have a pretty good idea how much power they’ll need. And since trucks typically return to the garage every night, there’s little worry about finding a charger. Electrics “are quiet, don’t pollute, and vibrate less than diesels,” says Mike O’Connell, director of fleet capability for Frito-Lay North America. “Our sales reps are fighting over who gets the next one.”
The problem with most electric trucks is that many manufacturers, seeking to gain early entry into this market, have focused their efforts on turning existing truck platforms into electric vehicles, with less-than-perfect results. It all boils down to weight: traditional diesel and gasoline powered vehicle chassis are extremely heavy, because they were designed to support also-heavy engines and transmissions. This ultimately translates into shorter range, or lower cargo-carrying capacity.
Because it was designed from the ground up to be a battery-powered EV, the eStar is able to eliminate all the unnecessary weight, and even gain a few advantages. For example: because the battery pack is placed low, between the frame rails, the eStar has an extremely low center of gravity, giving it very good maneuverability. (The eStar also claims a 36-foot turning radius, although I’m not sure this could be directly attributed to it being an electric vehicle.)
The eStar has features that we have come to expect from EVs, including regenerative braking (up to 7% additional power per duty cycle), and a simple, two-speed automatic transmission. A less-common, but more interesting feature is its claim to recyclability. Although details on this are sketchy at best, the company claims that “£6m…was spent on ensuring that at the end of its life, it’s possible to recycle 98% of the product.”
The eStar’s battery pack consists of an 80 kilowatt/hour Lithium-Ion cassette, with a 220 volt split-phase charger on-board. The pack is removable, and can be swapped in only 20 minutes. Fleet owners have the option of charging the battery in place, which takes approximately 8 hours, or swapping a depleted pack with a fully charged one, at the end of a duty cycle.
The eStar doesn’t look like your typical delivery truck, with one blogger lamenting that “the designer clearly spent too much time watching Blade Runner.” However, its futuristic shape has one distinct advantage: very high visibility, with the bubble-shaped cockpit giving the driver a 180-degree horizontal view. Ironically, a driver will need that extra visibility: the company’s driver instruction manual highlights the fact that pedestrians will barely hear the eStar approaching, and urges drivers to use the horn more.
The eStar has a top speed of only 50 mph. While that is faster than most neighborhood electric vehicles (NEVs), it still means that the eStar will be confined to local deliveries only, and will not travel on the highways.
The eStar appears to be an excellent contender in the commercial delivery truck battle. I like its clean, simple design, and I especially like the fact that it was purpose-built as an EV. If the recyclability claims hold water, you can increase my excitement tenfold. Given that the parent company is an extremely well-established and well-respected manufacturer of commercial vehicles, and buoyed by a $39 million dollar grant from the Department of Energy (2009), the eStar should do very well.
Steve Puma is Director of Business Development for SABA Motors, and a sustainability writer/consultant. His work focuses (mostly) on clean transportation, including Plug-In Electric Vehicles, something he is very passionate about.
Steve holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School and a BA in Computer Science from Rutgers University. You can learn more about Steve by reading his blog, or following his tweets.