Update 5/13/11 – Smith will soon start using A123 batteries. See bottom.
I wrote here about how electric cars were just better pieces of machinery than gas-powered ones, since they were quieter, handled better, and were more reliable. This article, “Doing Delivery Rounds in an Electric Smith Newton” by Nick Kurczewski, talks about exactly this in the context of delivery vans in New York City. Frito-Lay is slowly converting their 22,000-strong van fleet to battery-powered models, and will have 176 by this summer. They’re built by Smith Electric, now of Kansas City but originally from the UK. The Smith vans come in three sizes (12.8 to 16.7 foot wheelbases) and three payload capacities for each (7300 to 16,000 lbs), which is probably determined by battery size.
They range from $85K for a 40 kWh version to $135K for a 120 kWh. The bottom end is still 1/3 more expensive than a diesel of similar size. However, the diesels only get about 10 miles per gallon. Assuming they drive 50 miles a day, and that diesel is $3.50 a gallon for big buyers, the break-even point is at only 4 years. They should also be much cheaper to maintain, so the real break-even is likely to be even sooner. At $500/kWh, there are $20K worth of batteries in this truck, so as that price falls (and as the price of diesel rises), the economics of electric vans will become overwhelmingly positive.
But the driver interviewed in the article loves his new truck not because it’s cheaper but because it’s so much quieter. Diesels are so loud that they probably damage their drivers’ hearing after 10 or 20 years. This truck is so quiet that he has to honk at bicyclists to let them know he’s there.
It’s too bad that New York can’t give Frito-Lay a credit for making its streets quieter. There’s an unpriced externality – truck companies save money on noise mitigation but everyone else is distracted and annoyed. On the other hand, New Yorkers are already plenty intense – if their powers of concentration weren’t ruined by street noise they’d be really dangerous.
The Smith vans use lithium-ion iron-phospate batteries from Valence Technology. Valence builds the batteries in China and does most of its R&D there, but appears to be behind A123 Systems in battery power and density, and has long had financial problems. A123 used to also build in China, but found that its technology walked out the door to competitors, and now they have a plant in Michigan. A123 is supplying batteries to Navistar and Eaton for similar electric van systems, but Smith appears to be ahead of them for the moment.
They’re also pioneering new markets on military bases. Diesel fuel is pretty expensive for civilians, but it’s insanely expensive when it has to be driven across Afghan mountain passes while being shot at. Reliability matters there too. In this, as in so many other areas, the US military might be setting US industrial policy. Maybe electric vehicles will lose their crunchy-granola, tree-hugger vibe when they’re being driven by crew-cut Marines.
Update 5/13/11 – I mentioned that Smith was using batteries from troubled Valence Technology. A123 has just announced that they will be supplying Smith with batteries too: A123 Gets Needed Jolt with EV Truck Contract. They hope to ship 500 to 700 truck’s worth this year, and several thousands next year, mainly from their plant in Michigan. A123 has their own serious financial problems, but they have a lot of design wins in the pipeline. One of the more interesting is for a 12V lithium-ion battery to replace the lead-acid one in cars. It permits the engine to be shut off and restarted much more easily, and can store power from regenerative braking. They claim a 15% mileage improvement, which would be huge if true.