All-Electric Commercial Vehicles: Now Available in the U.S.

Photo Credit: Vi Photography

I have heard the future.  And it sounds… quiet.  As a new transplant to DC, I started accepting road noise and grimy air as inevitabilities of city life.  On Tuesday, Bryan Hansel, CEO of Smith Electric Vehicles, showed me an alternative.  (Thank you, Bryan.)

On Tuesday, at the footsteps of the US Capitol, six companies accepted keys to their brand-new Smith Newton vehicles, the world’s largest all-electric truck.

The Newton has a top speed of 50 mph, gets at least 100 miles per charge, and can carry a payload of up to 16,280 lbs. It is also the first vehicle to obtain certification as a Zero Emissions Vehicle by the California Air Resources Board.

Robin Mackie, Smith’s CTO, described the Newton’s purpose as “high-density urban logistics” such as making service calls or deliveries within large cities (where 50 mph is plenty).

Executives from Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), Coca-Cola, Staples, Frito-Lay, AT&T, and Kansas City Power & Light (KCP&L) cited the Newton as a way to meet internal sustainability goals.  For example, AT&T will deploy 15,000 alternative fuel vehicles by 2019.  Coca-Cola seeks to reduce its overall emissions by 15% by 2020.

However, most admitted they did not expect an overall payback on these pilot project investments.  Then why do it?

Every executive spoke of “visionary leadership” and the importance of partnerships.  Each told a similar story: They get to be the first to partner with Smith, test the product, and give their input.  When prices come down in the future, they will already have a foot in the door.

Over the long-term, a Smith partnership is likely to be very lucrative.  Smith Electric Vehicles cost an average of 8 cents/mile to operate (compared with 40 cents/mile for diesel).  The company expects the lifecycle costs of electric vehicles to drop below traditional vehicles by 2011.

While this goal may sound overly ambitious, I’m a believer. I think Hansel and his executive team have made some brilliant managerial decisions:

First, Smith will be manufacturing the Newton in a Kansas-based factory from Missouri-sourced batteries.  That enables them to take advantage of the “buy American” clause in the stimulus funding.  It also attracted the attention of Senator Kit Bond (R-MO) and Carol Browner, Obama’s #2 for Energy and Climate, who were both keynote speakers at the event.

Second, with the DOE marking $2 billion in funding for vehicle battery research, Hansel anticipates battery prices to drop significantly in the next two years.

Finally, Smith knows this market.  They started making electric vehicles 80 years ago (yes, 80) when milk floats were still used for home delivery of milk.  They are implementing a proven business model:  Find successful “green” technologies in Europe, wait for the US legislation to copy the EU, and then bring those innovations to the US market.

PG&E has another unique angle for supporting electric vehicles: Consumer education.  An electric vehicle is only as clean as its fuel source. As one of the nation’s cleanest energy generators, PG&E wants to spark demand for electric vehicles while encouraging consumers to purchase their low-emitting energy to supply them.

Since PG&E’s “first responder” electrical repair truck was the first Newton produced for the US market, I jumped at the opportunity to take a ride.  The first challenge? I couldn’t tell the vehicle was turned on until the air conditioning started blowing.  There was no noise.  No vibration.  The second challenge? Constant stares and pointing from pedestrians on the street.  The sides of each truck marketed its “all-electric” status, and that got a lot of attention from spectators.

After the test ride, I was not surprised to hear that Dave Meisel, Director of Transportation Services for PG&E, receives daily e-mail requests from his service centers: “Please send the Newton to us!”

Matthew Holtry is a full-time Consultant for PRIZIM Inc. and a seasonal Journalist for Triple Pundit. His previous experience includes greenhouse gas & energy consulting, eco-business journalism, and various IT roles. He recently received his MBA from Penn State University, where he also served as the President of Penn State Net Impact. He was a former AmeriCorps Team Leader with Outward Bound, has driven cross-country twice, visited 19 countries, and now resides in Washington, DC.

4 responses

  1. Good article. I’m looking forward to the electrification of the U.S. transportation sector as well. However, there’s a logic to its implementation that I think needs to be addressed. Before electric cars are mass produced, America needs to figure out how to phase out coal power generation, or to at least ensure that these vehicles are not charged using the the power output of coal plants. Otherwise electric cars will make little-to-no difference in improving U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

  2. It's going to take huge subsidizing to get mass adoption of electric vehicles mainstream. I say we bite the bullet now, before being forced in this direction.

Leave a Reply