Fleet buyers warm to alternative auto tech

With lots of options, from hybrid delivery trucks to natural gas sedans and government support, fleet operators say the time is ripe for trying out green auto technologies.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
4 min read

FRAMINGHAM, Mass.--If you want to find out about the cutting edge in green automotive technology, talk to fleet managers.

Although they may have a reputation for stodginess, operators of corporate and municipal fleets are pushing the limits of alternative fuels in both passenger cars and trucks. These projects are driven both by environmental programs and fuel savings, according to attendees at the AltWheels 2009 Fleet Day conference here on Monday.

In the past year, new products, notably hybrid and all-electric commercial trucks, are coming to market. Also, the confidence level in the various alternative energy technologies is firmer, speakers said.

"This is not toy science anymore. This is real utility," said Mike Payette, the fleet equipment manager for Staples, which hosted the event at its corporate headquarters. "It's working exactly as this technology is supposed to work."

Staples has just received hybrid and all-electric delivery trucks made by Smith Electric Vehicles which it will begin testing. The stop-and-go traffic of delivery trucks is well suited to hybrid and electric technology as the trucks can charge batteries during braking. Martin LaMonica/CNET

Fleet managers said that the use of hybrid sedans and SUVs has been picking up for salaried employees, such as salespeople or police and fire workers. New York City, for example, has bought more than 3,000 hybrids--Toyota Priuses and Nissan Altimas--since 2001 as part of an effort to reduce the city's greenhouse gas emissions, said Steve Weir, director in the Office of Fleet Administration.

Now, hybrids are being scaled up for bigger jobs. Staples recently received hybrid and all-electric delivery trucks from Smith Electric Vehicles that it will test in different locations. The initial cost is higher--partially offset by government stimulus spending--but Payette estimates that operating the electric and hybrid delivery trucks will cost about half as much as their diesel equivalents.

From a technology point of view, hybrids and battery-electric vehicles are well suited for deliveries, since the stop-and-go nature of the driving allows the trucks to recharge the batteries during braking. Also, the length of trips is well understood, whereas consumers will typically do a mix of driving, including long trips.

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But that doesn't mean that electric or hybrid vehicles make sense in every application, said attendees, who are using propane, natural gas, and biodiesel. Fleet managers need to also consider the driving range--Staples' electric delivery truck can go between 100 and 120 miles--as well as the weight of what's being transported.

"The question is not whether it will work, it's whether it will work for me--that's what's different," said Stephen Connors from the Laboratory for Energy and the Environment at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "It's all about the drive cycle."

In many cases, in-car technology and programs to promote environmentally aware driving can deliver significant fuel savings, attendees said. The City of Keene, N.H., delivered monthly reports on fuel usage and mileage to department heads in an effort to encourage fuel efficiency habits, such as cutting idling. But far more effective are mechanical systems that enforce driver behavior, said Steve Russell, the former fleet superintendent.

For example, Staples changed the top speed of its Isuzu delivery trucks to 60 miles per hour and installed a system that automatically shuts trucks off after three minutes of idling. Those adjustments showed fuel savings between 4.3 percent and 5 percent on 75 vehicles, according to Payette.

Other fleets are simply converting to four-cylinder vehicles, at times adding more amenities to motivate employees to convert. Heating and cooling equipment company Carrier was able to meet its emissions-reduction goals by choosing a different size vehicle and reducing the weight of deliveries, said purchasing manager Denise Cross.

Business case
Conference speakers said that many efforts to make their fleets more environmentally friendly were driven by corporate environmental sustainability efforts, which can help improve a company's image. But at the same time, there is scrutiny on the financial implications of using hybrids or biofuels, for example.

"We were in a state of flux last year: 'is this going to work?' This year, we're able to put vehicles in place and say that there are lower emissions overall--so we have proof," said Tom Hartner, the manager of global sourcing at Millipore. "Now we're trying to make sure we can deliver at a lower cost--that's where we're going."

Often, the financial picture includes the cost of vehicles, the cost of fuels--biodiesel or natural gas, for example--and ongoing maintenance and infrastructure costs. Staples is projecting that it will be able to get its hybrid and electric trucks competitive on price compared to diesel after funding for the government-aided project runs out, said Payette. "I don't want to be the greenest company to go out of business," he said.

In many cases, corporations don't get federal tax incentives for hybrid passenger cars. But there is federal stimulus money available for projects to test and ramp up production of components for plug-in electric vehicles. For example, a number of utilities are testing how plug-in electric vehicles can fit into smart-grid projects, where cars are charged at off-peak times and act to stabilize power grid frequency.

MIT's Connors said that one of the underlying questions with green auto technologies is what will happen after the stimulus funding ends--and whether these projects will continue if oil prices drop significantly. But corporations and auto suppliers need to go through the trial programs to test various technologies and help bring down the cost of components, he said.

Staples' Payette said he expects the cost of battery and electric motors for vehicles to drop 40 percent as volumes ramp up. Although there isn't a widespread refueling infrastructure, biofuels and natural gas look promising as well, he said.