Electric vocational vehicles need inspirational spark

Quimby Mug Bayou Florida Headshot
Updated Jun 7, 2016
UPS’ 1936 electric package vehicles stand at the ready.UPS’ 1936 electric package vehicles stand at the ready.

Electric vocational vehicles are nothing new.

As Carlton Rose, president of Global Fleet Maintenance & Engineering at UPS, pointed out recently at ACT Expo, the package delivery giant utilized electric package vehicles in their New York City fleet from the 1930s to the 1960s.

Something else replaced them.

Competition. Supply and demand. Laissez-faire. The free market. The bottom line. A profit margin.

In the 1960s, UPS and any other company could more easily make the decision to yank an alternative-fueled vehicle from its fleet, based solely on profitability.

Now, greater emissions and public image concerns vis-à-vis constant news cycles and social media must be taken into account when considering the roll alt fuel vehicles will play at a company.

Improved technology combined with generous tax incentives are improving the outlook of electric vocational vehicles, but not necessarily their sales.

Forbes recently ran an article in which it points out that sales at electric pickup manufacturer Via Motors are anything but electricfying. It questions the pickup’s viability in one of the automotive industry’s most competitive segments.

The Via Motors Vtrux is billed as the “world’s first extended-range pickup truck.” It runs on electric power the first 40 miles then switches to a 4.3-liter V6 engine which will charge the batteries and get the truck up to its 400-mile range.

The truck looks impressive. It can deliver 120 and 240-volt exportable power. A full charge typically costs less than $2, the company states, which comes out to about 5 cents per mile. Vtrux can be serviced at Chevrolet dealers and it qualifies for a $7,500 federal tax incentive.

However, Forbes points out that the truck’s electric range will take a quick nose-dive when it does what pickups are apt to do: towing and hauling.

While Via Motors lists the Vtrux’ payload capacity at 1,000 pounds, it does not offer any towing specs.

But it’s not just range limitations that pose concerns for electric vocational vehicles. It’s also the use of lithium-ion batteries. Environmentalists have voiced concerns for years about the amount of energy used to produce the batteries and the hazards posed by their disposal. The batteries, derived from limited resources, have also caught headlines for causing fires. Granted, most auto manufacturers have extinguished fears of battery fires through competent engineering, but in short, lithium-ion batteries are not exactly pillars of conservation and safety.

“Electric cars are major hypocritical BS already (just passes the alleged ‘bad’ fuel burning somewhere else), but an electric truck?!” a reader wrote in a comment following an article HWT ran in March of 2015 announcing Via Motors’ electrification of a Chevrolet Silverado 4×4.

Research into safer, more abundant and environmentally friendly sodium-ion batteries continues, but to date, challenges still largely stem from slow discharge and recharge rates.

As most alternative vehicle proponents are apt to do, Via Motors points out that the volatility of the oil market makes their electric trucks and vans a more promising option. The latest media post on their website from April features a report from Bloomberg News which predicts an oil market crash.

While government tax incentives are attractive to some buyers, they offer no guarantee on the vehicle’s impact on the company’s bottom line.

Companies and the people they serve want vehicles that offer the most return on investment while minimizing environmental impact.

With that in mind, Forbes has endorsed fuel-cell electric vehicles. However, the hydrogen-based technology is too expensive at this point to warrant widespread production. It still is promising, though: fuel cell stacks replace heavy batteries to power electric powertrains.

Until electric vocational vehicles catch up with the notions of profitability and the bottom-line, they’ll still have to continue to rely on government mandates and tax credits to get a head-start.

And even with that kind of help fueling their advancement, they’re still largely getting left behind.