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FedEx Blog

Electric trucks from the wheels up

March 29, 2010

The all-electric vehicle project has been a bit more challenging than the implementation of the Hybrid-Electric delivery vehicles we have deployed.  (We started with four of them in 2004, and are operating more than 300 now.)

This all-electric vehicle, though, was purpose-built, meaning every system in the vehicle must be designed, tested and built from scratch.  To build an entire vehicle from scratch tests the mettle of automotive engineers and customers alike.

As we think through the likelihood of this new technology becoming dominant in service to our customers in urban areas, I can foresee a few challenges.  These challenges are significant, but need to be conquered to secure the energy future of the United States or any country that wants to end dependence on foreign energy sources.  Our Chairman, Fred Smith, has been vocal in calling for the need to secure our country’s energy independence and, in working with SAFE (Securing America’s Future Energy), he has outlined a path toward energy security via the electrification of short-haul transport.  Our new ZEV is a real first step in this process.

The bridge from electric vehicle technology today to a world where it is mainstream involves:

  • Improving and then stabilizing the technology of electric vehicles: Today batteries are large and creature comforts in the vehicles are small.  The cost of the 80 kilowatt-hour battery needed to propel this truck and its cargo 100 miles is well above the cost of a large luxury sedan.  We’ll need to see the technology evolve to ensure that these vehicles can use smaller, more energy-dense batteries to achieve what we expect in our vehicles.  In today’s conventional trucks, comforts we take for granted, like air-conditioning, and safety features like power steering and power brakes, are “hung” from the truck engine and powered via a drive belt.  In an electric vehicle everything is powered by the batteries, meaning that adding air conditioning or power steering shortens the range of the truck before it needs recharging.
  • Stimulating demand:  The recent economic stimulus package provided funding for the production of batteries and electric vehicles.  Demand will need stimulation as well.  While the initial costs to the manufacturers have been subsidized, these all-electric trucks are still a lot more expensive to buy than conventional trucks.  So, it will take some stimulus on the customer side as well to get sales moving and encourage the kind of initial production levels that can help bring down the cost of the batteries from the price of a large luxury sedan to something in the range of a motorcycle.  I’ll leave it to the policy experts to determine what might work best, but certainly things like tax credits, accelerated depreciation and incentive funding that companies can plan on would go a long way.
  • Establishing regulations that understand today’s and tomorrow’s technology:  Much like Hybrid vehicles, plug in vehicles need to have regulations which understand what today’s EV’s and Plug-in EVs are capable of doing.  Trucks are regulated differently than cars and a small range extending engine, which could serve to charge only the batteries, will go a long way in putting “Plug-in” EVs on the street.
  • Preparing the gridThe Economist magazine recently pointed out that when the first electric cars are purchased they will tend to go the same neighborhoods where the environmentally conscious consumers with means will purchase them, keeping electric vehicles unevenly distributed.  We’ll have the same issue with electric trucks.  I’m told that each ZEV truck will be the equivalent of adding one new house to the grid for peak demand.  Imagine when we are able to put the first 100 electric vehicles into one FedEx Express station, making it a completely electric vehicle station, as we did with our 100% hybrid vehicle station in the Bronx in New York City.  This would be the equivalent of putting 100 houses peak electric needs into 50,000 square feet of space.  The grid will need to be ready to bear this load.  The fact that companies like FedEx operate their delivery trucks almost exclusively during the day helps, because they’ll be recharged at night, “off-peak” in utility terms, when there is usually surplus power available on the existing grid.
  • Preparing city governments: As huge amounts of power are brought to buildings and EVs are put on the street we transition from Federal Motor Vehicle standard control to local control for building code and regulatory compliance.  Cities that want these new, clean electric trucks will work collaboratively with fleet operators to get them the facilities they need without endless bureaucratic hassles.  Put another way, fleet operators will choose the cities that really want these vehicles as “early adopters.”

Like hybrids, electric vehicles will have a role in helping us achieve our goal to improve the fuel efficiency of the fleet 20% by 2020.  The challenges are real, but very solvable.

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