June 3, 2023

Not long after buying a Ford E-Transit van for his plumbing business last November, Mitch Smedley sat down with some receipts and a calculator to figure out how much the electric vehicle had saved him on fuel costs.

A few minutes of math showed he was spending about $110 to $140 a week on fuel for each of the four older, diesel Transits in his fleet. He then calculated how much electricity he used to charge the electric model to travel the same distance — about 300 miles a week. The cost: about $9 per week.

“I knew there would be some savings because our electricity is very cheap here,” says Mr. Smedley, whose company is based in Blue Springs, Mo., just east of Kansas City. “But I was amazed when I worked it out. It makes it really really cheap to operate.

Passenger cars have taken the lead in the transition of the automotive industry to electric vehicles. In the first quarter of 2023, EV sales were 45 percent higher than the same period a year ago to 259,000 cars and trucks, according to research firm Cox Automotive. Tesla remains by far the largest seller, while General Motors, Ford Motor, Hyundai, Volkswagen and others sell multiple electric models. Cox expects annual EV sales in the US market to exceed one million for the first time this year.

So far, light commercial vehicles represent a small portion of all electric cars and trucks sold, but in many ways battery-powered vehicles are well suited for work fleets. Because trucks and vans often cover limited distances or fixed routes every day, they do not need large and expensive battery packs. Most can get by with enough energy to go about 100 miles before needing a recharge. One factor that makes electric cars significantly more expensive than internal combustion engine models is that consumers want the ability to go 250 or 300 miles on a single charge because they fear being stranded far from anywhere to plug in. stiches.

Commercial vehicles are typically parked overnight in parking lots where they can be easily charged and ready to go in the morning with a full battery. Electric trucks also require less maintenance than traditional vehicles. They require no oil changes and have no transmissions, mufflers or fuel pumps to wear out or break. And they don’t burn fuel at idle.

More than consumers, commercial fleet owners look closely at the total cost of owning and operating vehicles over several years. That means they are often willing to accept a higher initial price to buy an electric truck in order to save money in the long run through lower fuel and maintenance costs.

Still, commercial EVs have had a slower start to sales, in part because of the troubles of several companies that had hoped to make them. Startups like Lordstown Motors, Arrival and Canoo are struggling to start or ramp up production, as is Workhorse, a small commercial truck manufacturer. Rivian, an Amazon-backed start-up, had hoped to sell thousands of electric vans to the online retailer by now, but has fallen far short of its goals.

The delays created an opening for Ford and GM, two of the nation’s largest automakers, to release their own battery-powered work trucks. A derivative of Ford’s Transit commercial vehicle, the E-Transit is available in a variety of sizes and can be used as a delivery van, shuttle bus or utility vehicle for contractors, repairers, plumbers and other small businesses.

Ford sold about 6,500 E-Transits last year. In March, the United States Postal Service ordered 9,250 E-Transits to be deployed by the end of 2024.

GM created an independent division, BrightDrop, to tailor a larger vehicle for package and cargo delivery. BrightDrop produced a test fleet of approximately 500 battery-powered vans to be delivered to customers in 2022, and began commercial production of its Zevo 600 model at an Ontario facility this year.

Together with the truck, BrightDrop has developed an electric cart that allows drivers to remove many packages from the truck, reducing the number of trips the driver makes back and forth. One version of the cart is refrigerated for product and grocery deliveries.

In Hooksett, NH, Merchants Fleet, a company that manages vehicles used by delivery services, has tested 150 BrightDrop vans over the past year and is eager to add more.

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

“What we’ve learned from the vehicles on the road is that you save somewhere between $10,000 and $12,000 a year because fuel and maintenance costs are so much lower with electric vehicles,” he said. “If a company plans a five-year lifespan, that means savings of $50,000 per vehicle. That is very compelling.”

Mr Jacobs said Merchants Fleet has orders for a further 750 BrightDrop trucks and reservations for a further 17,000.

Large delivery companies have been clamoring for electric trucks for years. Amazon hopes to buy as many as 100,000 Rivian vans and is considering an electric Ram ProMaster van that Chrysler’s parent company, Stellantis, would start making this year.

UPS has ordered 10,000 electric vans from Arrival, a start-up company based in Luxembourg that also operates in the UK. Arrival has faced financial problems and production delays. FedEx plans to buy battery-powered vans only from 2030 and hopes to operate an all-electric fleet by 2040. It has tested 150 BrightDrop trucks, is taking delivery of 350 more and has reservations for another 2,000.

Nelson Granados, a FedEx delivery driver in Inglewood, California, has been using a BrightDrop vehicle for the past year, a white van with the orange-and-blue FedEx logo next to a picture of a bright green plug and electrical cord.

Mr. Granados gives his thumbs up to the truck. The truck has comforts that the diesel vans lack, such as a stereo and heated seats, as well as a lower floor that makes getting in and out easier. “You get in and out all day, so it pays off,” Mr Granados said. “It’s like a luxury van.”

Mr. Smedley, the Kansas City-area plumber, has noticed benefits from his E-Transit in addition to fuel savings. On job sites, the truck can power equipment such as drain cleaning machines, eliminating the need to lug around a generator. He started taking the van to Kansas City Chiefs games — he has season tickets — so he can use the outlets for tailgating. The truck also ensures it gets premium parking in the spots in Arrowhead Stadium reserved for electric vehicles.

This year, Mr. Smedley to add a second electric model to his fleet, a Ford F-150 Lighting pickup. He has also continued to track the savings he is making with the E-Transit.

“When I look at the cost over five years,” he said with a laugh, “it’s almost like getting a free van.”