When you operate over 70,000 delivery vehicles worldwide, as UPS does, increasing the miles per gallon of your vehicles is an economically motivated endeavor with some welcome environmental side benefits. Over the years, UPS has tested various vehicle propulsion technologies, including natural gas, hydrogen fuel cells, electric vehicles, and hybrids, to squeeze out ever greater fuel efficiency. However, the announcement that they have started testing a plastic prototype truck, shows that significant improvements can be made without the use of new or elaborate drive train technologies - instead, worthwhile gains can be achieved merely by saving weight.
In fact, 1,000 lbs of weight has been saved by UPS - in collaboration with Utilimaster - on it's prototype CV-23 truck, which uses lighter ABS plastic, instead of sheet aluminum for it's body panels. The reduced heft allows a smaller Isuzu 4-cylinder diesel engine to be used, together resulting in a vehicle which achieves 40% better fuel economy as compared with one of their regular package delivery trucks.
This fact sheet from UPS details the particulars of the new CV-23 prototype vehicle, which could possibly replace the current P70 package truck if testing through the remainder of this year is successful. Assuming it stands up to the rigors of the real world, 40% improved fuel efficiency sounds like something worth taking advantage of. So let's, put it into perspective.
What exactly does an existing P70 truck achieve by way of fuel efficiency? Green Car Congress reported in 2009, that a 12 month test of a P70 hybrid, conducted by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), achieved 29% greater fuel efficiency as compared with the non-hybrid P70 diesel. The diesel averaged 10.2 mpg, so it seems reasonable to use this figure to extrapolate the 40% increase in fuel efficiency of the CV-23. A quick calculation suggests the new vehicle should get something like 14.28 mpg (in excess of a 4 mpg improvement) and it's worth noting that this betters the efficiency of the hybrid, which was rated at 13.1 mpg in the study. These aren't UPS's figures, but any error should be small.
Though somehow a 40% gain in fuel efficiency sounds more impressive than the 4 mpg it likely represents, this should not detract at all from the significant achievement and impact such a saving would have at scale. In a cover story by industry publisher, Fleet Maintenance, which, aside from detailing many really ingenious ways UPS is addressing delivery efficiency, also noted that UPS drivers log over 3 billion miles globally per year. Yes, that's 3 billion! Now, of course, globally, not every truck UPS operates is the same, but in order to ponder the possible order of magnitude a 4 mpg per vehicle saving could mean to UPS - if the 3 billion miles were to be driven in the new CV-23 instead of the older P70, extrapolating the efficiency advantage represents over 84 million gallons of fuel saved. That's worth having.
Taking a systems thinking approach to this development however, the question arises as to whether the use of ABS plastic - while saving weight and fuel - creates some other environmental hazard, particularly during scrapping, when the vehicle reaches the end of its life. After all, the aluminum used in existing vehicle panels is an infinitely recyclable resource. It turns out that ABS has a strong recovery rate as well. According to the Argonne National laboratory, they have developed a process that recovers ABS with up to 99% purity, so if scrapping the new truck is handled properly, negative environmental impacts may be mitigated. UPS's weight loss program looks promising therefore, and it will be interesting to see whether the new vehicle is rubber-stamped for future service after testing is completed later this year.
Phil Covington holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School. In the past, he spent 16 years in the freight transportation and logistics industry. Today, Phil's writing focuses on transportation, forestry, technology and matters of sustainability in business.