Getting Charged Up over Electric Vehicles

Commercial plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) can be a viable option for some fleet vehicles today—they are expensive, but can deliver several benefits for some businesses. PEVs include both pure electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles that have small internal combustion engines. At this point in the development of the PEV industry, it’s all about finding the right niches, identifying and assessing the value that PEVs could offer your organization, and considering carefully what role these vehicles might play in the future.

Why do it? There are several reasons to consider PEVs:

  • Reduced fuel cost. Using electricity as the primary or only fuel instead of traditional sources can produce cost savings of 75 percent.
  • Reduced maintenance costs. The U.S. Postal Service tested six pure electric vehicles in its fleet and found that their average maintenance costs were $0.122 per mile—about 54 percent of the average maintenance costs for the fleet’s conventional vehicles. No solid data exist yet for plug-in hybrid vehicle maintenance costs; however, because their internal combustion engine supplies only a fraction of the overall vehicle miles, maintenance intervals should be longer and costs correspondingly lower.
  • Reduced carbon dioxide emissions. For businesses that participate in carbon reduction programs, PEVs can help. Numerous studies have shown that even when the charging electricity comes from a coal plant, plug-in hybrid electric passenger cars have 30 percent lower emissions than conventional ones. Because the fuel economy of most commercial vehicles is far lower than that of passenger vehicles, the potential carbon dioxide emissions reduction for commercial PEVs is much greater. As one example of corporate efforts, to help meet its goals for reducing emissions, Coca-Cola Enterprises employs the largest heavy-duty commercial hybrid fleet in North America, with more than 330 vehicles.
  • Opportunity for demonstrating corporate commitment to sustainability. For a company that operates a large fleet, few aspects of business operation are as public as its vehicles, particularly the vans and trucks that are often covered with the corporate logo. Partly in an effort to win customer respect, several corporations, including Coca-Cola, Frito-Lay, AT&T, and Staples, are participating in a project that will deploy several pure electric delivery trucks from Smith Electric Vehicles in 2010.
  • Financial incentives. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels and Advanced Vehicles Data Center provides a database of federal and state incentives and laws that cover electric, hybrid electric, and neighborhood (that is, limited to speeds of 35 miles per hour) electric vehicles.

In spite of their advantages, PEVs remain expensive, primarily due to the cost of the lithium ion batteries they use. However, with battery prices declining (by 30 percent in the last two years alone), fuel prices volatile but headed upward in the long term, and corporations looking to shrink their carbon footprint, it may not be long before PEVs fit into your business operations.

Where to start. These application characteristics will help you to identify the most likely candidates:

  • Vehicles that run relatively short, well-defined daily routes
  • Vehicles that return to a specific facility each night (so they can be recharged)
  • Vehicles that spend significant time idling
  • Routes that follow a relatively flat topography
  • Routes with a lot of stops (this tends to make the best use of the vehicles’ regenerative braking)
  • Routes with little or no highway driving (this minimizes losses from aerodynamic drag)
  • Facilities with competent service personnel
  • Local management willing to embrace and drive technology change

Once you have identified an application in which you’d like to evaluate a PEV, ask the PEV manufacturer to demonstrate a vehicle in that application for a week or two to learn about its strengths and weaknesses. If the short-term test is promising, consider acquiring a small number of vehicles to evaluate long-term performance under a wider range of operating conditions. Early evaluation of PEVs in these types of applications will prepare you to deploy them quickly on a broader basis if and when you can demonstrate a solid business case.

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