Why Your Cable Guy Might Drive an Electric Vehicle Before You Do

[Update: Ford just announced this morning that AT&T is the lead customer for the Transit Connect Electric. The telecom giant, which plans to spend $565 million to deploy more than 15,000 alternative-fuel vehicles through 2018, will purchase two of the first Ford Transit Connect Electric vans.]

Last week, I took an all-electric version of Ford’s Transit Connect out for a spin here in San Francisco. It wasn’t all that exciting.

I’m not the only one who thought so, either. Of course, most utility vans aren’t exactly the haute couture of the auto world. They need to be reliable and easy to drive, not flashy.

But Ford’s strategy behind its rollout of the electric Transit Connect is smartly dressed. “This is the right vehicle for the right need,” Praveen Cherian, program manager of the Transit Connect, told me as we drove up Russian Hill on Pine Street. Since utility vans are driven on predictable routes, within a defined urban or suburban area, and are brought back to a central garage at the end of each day, fleet owners can enjoy the big benefit of electric vehicles—zero direct emissions—without worrying so much about their limitations—namely, limited range on a single battery charge.

Of course, they won’t be maintenance-free. Businesses will need to work out a place and schedule for all the trucks in their fleets to sit for up to eight hours, sucking on a 220volt charge, depending on how much of the battery’s 80-mile range is used up over the course of a work day. Fleets with quicker turnover needs would benefit from a quick-charging 440volt interface, but that would required a special converter that’s not standard on the van.

And charging up a car isn’t plug-and-play yet. Cherian said he had to make multiple trips to Home Depot, looking for a plug interface that would allow him to juice up the demo van on a 220volt plug at a Ford dealership in San Francisco. “We ended up splicing on a new plug,” he said.  And if that was the case here in EV-happy San Francisco, what more proof does one need that the charging infrastructure for EVs isn’t exactly mature?

But that’s all the more reason for EVs to make their prime time debut as part of commercial fleets, where the business owner will have to figure out where and how to charge.

Ford will begin selling this electric version of its Transit Connect utility van later this year, to fleet owners. (And if you don’t happen to be a fleet owner, worry not. It will be available to the public next year.) So now the question is: what other carmakers will jump on this idea? The answer, it appears, is not a household name but rather a small EV player, Bright Automotive.

The US Postal Service has asked Bright Automotive to outfit a test fleet of its Grumman Long Life Vehicles with the electric drive train used in Bright’s IDEA plug-in hybrid. The agency—which might be suffering from a dying business model but sure does seem interested in reducing its environmental impact—plans to test the plug-ins for a year.

Freelance writer Mary Catherine O'Connor finds that a growing number of companies are proving the ways that they can make good financially, socially and environmentally (as the triple bottom line theory suggests).With that in mind, she contributes to Triple Pundit, as well as to Earth2Tech and other pubs focused on sustainability. She also writes The Good Route, an Outside Magazine blog that addresses the intersection of sustainability and the active/outdoor life.To find out more, or to reach her, go to www.mcoconnor.com.

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