Electric trucks, which have been delayed due to production problems, are looking for eager buyers

Not long after buying a Ford E-Transit for his plumbing business last November, Mitch Smedley sat down with some receipts and a calculator to see how much the electric car was saving him in fuel expenses.

A few minutes of crunching the numbers showed he was spending about $110 to $140 a week on fuel for each of the four oldest diesel cars in his fleet. Then he calculated how much electricity he was using to charge the electric model to drive the same distance—about 300 miles per week. Cost: about $9 per week.

“I knew there would be some savings because our electricity here is so inexpensive,” said Mr. Smedley, whose business is based in Blue Springs, Missouri, just east of Kansas City. “But I was amazed when I got it working. It makes it really cheap to run.”

In the auto industry’s shift to electric vehicles, passenger cars have led the way. In the first quarter of 2023, electric vehicle sales rose 45 percent from the same period last year to 259,000 cars and trucks, according to research firm Cox Automotive. Tesla remains the biggest seller by far, while General Motors, Ford Motor, Hyundai, Volkswagen, and others sell multiple electric models. Cox expects total annual electric vehicle sales in the US market to reach one million vehicles this year for the first time.

So far, light commercial vehicles account for a small percentage of all electric cars and trucks sold, but in many ways, battery-powered vehicles are a perfect fit for work fleets. Because trucks and delivery vans often travel limited distances or fixed routes each day, they don’t need large, expensive battery packs. Most can get enough power to travel about 100 miles before they need to recharge. One factor that makes electric cars so much more expensive than internal combustion models is that consumers want the ability to travel 250 or 300 miles on a single charge because they fear being stranded far from anywhere to plug in.

Commercial vehicles are usually parked overnight in plenty of places where they can easily be charged up and ready to go with a full battery in the morning. Electric trucks also require less maintenance than conventional vehicles. They don’t need oil changes and they don’t have transmissions, mufflers or fuel pumps that can wear out or fail. And they don’t burn fuel when idling.

More than consumers, commercial fleet owners look closely at the total cost of owning and operating vehicles over several years. This means that they are often willing to accept a higher initial price to purchase an electric van to save money over time through lower fuel and maintenance costs.

However, commercial electric vehicles had a slower start to sales, in part due to problems with many companies hoping to make them. Start-ups like Lordstown Motors, Arrival, and Canoo struggled to start or ramp up production, as did Workhorse, a small commercial truck maker. Rivian, an Amazon-backed startup, had hoped to sell thousands of electric vans to the online retailer so far, but fell short of its targets.

The delay created an opportunity for Ford and General Motors, two of the nation’s largest automakers, to bring out their own battery-powered work trucks. The E-Transit, which is derived from Ford’s Transit commercial van, is available in various sizes and can be used as a delivery van, shuttle bus, or as a work truck for contractors, repairmen, plumbers, and other small businesses.

Ford sold about 6,500 E-Transits last year. In March, the US Postal Service ordered 9,250 electronic transports that are supposed to be in service by the end of 2024.

GM created a separate division, BrightDrop, to make a larger vehicle designed to deliver packages and merchandise. BrightDrop has produced a test fleet of about 500 battery-powered pickups delivered to customers in 2022, and began commercial production of its Zevo 600 at a factory in Ontario this year.

Along with the truck, BrightDrop has developed an electric trolley to enable drivers to pull multiple packages from the truck, reducing the number of trips a driver has to make back and forth. One version of the cart is refrigerated for the delivery of produce and groceries.

In Hooksett, New Hampshire, Merchants Fleet, a company that operates the vehicles used by delivery services, has tested 150 Bright Drop trucks over the past year and is eager to add more.

Brad Jacobs, the company’s vice president of fleet advisory, said the depreciation cost and interest cost on the capital used to purchase electric trucks are about the same as for combustion engine trucks.

“What we’ve learned with vehicles on the road is that you save $10,000 to $12,000 a year because the cost of fuel and maintenance is much lower with electric vehicles,” he said. “If the company were planning for a five-year service life, that would be a savings of $50,000 per vehicle. That’s very convincing.”

Mr Jacobs said Merchants Fleet had orders for an additional 750 Bright Drop trucks and had booked an additional 17,000.

Big delivery companies have been calling for electric trucks for years. Amazon hopes to buy as many as 100,000 Rivian pickups, and is considering an electric Ram ProMaster truck that Chrysler’s parent company, Stellantis, is supposed to start making this year.

UPS has ordered 10,000 electric vans from Access, a startup based in Luxembourg with operations in Britain. Arrival suffered from financial problems and production delays. FedEx plans to buy battery-only vans starting in 2030, and hopes to have an all-electric fleet in operation by 2040. It has been testing 150 BrightDrop vans, is taking delivery of another 350 and has a reservation for an additional 2,000.

Nelson Granados, a FedEx delivery driver in Englewood, Calif., has been using the BrightDrop vehicle for the past year, a white truck with an orange and purple FedEx logo next to an image of a bright green plug and electrical cord.

Mr. Granados gives the truck a thumbs up. The truck has amenities that diesel trucks lack such as a stereo and heated seats, as well as an underfloor that makes getting in and out easier. “You’re in and out all day, so it pays off,” Mr. Granados said. “It’s like a fancy delivery truck.”

Mr. Smedley, a plumber in the Kansas City area, has noted the benefits to his E-Transit besides fuel savings. On job sites, the truck can power equipment such as drain cleaning machines, eliminating the need to drive around a generator. He started taking the truck to Kansas City Chiefs games—he has season tickets—so he could use its electrical outlets for tailgating. The van also provides him with excellent parking in Arrowhead Stadium’s electric car park.

This year, Mr. Smedley decided to add a second electric model to his fleet, the Ford F-150 Lighting pickup truck. He also kept track of the savings he makes from E-Transit.

“When I look at the cost over five years,” he said, laughing, “it’s like getting a free truck.”

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