Fleet vehicles blazing the alternative energy trail

Fleet vehicles are leading the way in the use of everything alternatively driven – from electric cars to natural gas-fueled trucks, according to auto industry analysts. As more drive technologies come to the market, each will find its niche, rather than one technology fitting into every application, according to fleet operators speaking at the AltWheels Annual Fleet Day yesterday.
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For instance electric delivery trucks work best for city routes, being more comfortable and cheaper to fuel as compared to diesel trucks. Hybrids, on the other hand, fulfill use on longer routes. Improvements in aerodynamic design, such as the skirts on long-haul trailers, quickly pay for themselves in general.

"We are not going to overpay for vehicles," Mike Payette, fleet equipment manager for Staples was quoted as saying in a post by Martin LaMonica on CNET.com. "We don't want to be the greenest delivery vehicle company that just went out of business."

Companies usually begin an alternative fuels program as a result of a sustainability or environmental initiative within the corporation. Still, the economics of alternative fuels have to make dollars and sense to fleet operators. At Staples, alternative vehicle costs have to be equal to or less than conventional vehicles, once governmental grants and incentives are computed.

Alternative powertrains have been in testing for fleet vehicles for years by a number of companies, but fleet owners are emerging as trailblazers in bringing down the cost of new technologies, simply as a result of making the numbers viable.

Corporations can realize higher fuel savings and work with the range limits of EV batteries or provide natural gas or propane to trucks from central locations and occasionally unusual sources. FedEx, UPS and Google are examples of companies making significant progress in the switch to alternative drive systems.

Nevertheless, the fuel savings have to balance favorably with the added upfront costs on an electric, or CNG vehicle. Given no impetus of an environmental nature, most fleet managers will stick with tradition as a way of avoiding the risk that is anathema to such folks.

"Although each of the new technologies is cool to talk about, there's so much more than can be done around efficiencies and smart transportation, such as telematics and other IT technologies," said Alison Sander, the founder of the AltWheels, a nonprofit activist group. "They don't seem as exciting as a new hydrogen vehicle, but they have quicker paybacks."

As we stated in the story on Smith Electric Vehicles, posted yesterday, long before the average American is driving an electric vehicle, they will have been proven quite viable by the commercial fleet vehicles all around us.


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