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Business Costs & Regulation

Truck Manufacturers Going Electric

Government carrots and sticks are fueling the push to put more truckers on battery power.

Big-rig makers are eager to jump on the plug-in bandwagon, joining automakers in the scramble to take advantage of government incentives for vehicles that run on batteries. Next year, Navistar, with the aid of a $39-million federal stimulus grant, will build 400 midsize trucks powered by batteries and intended for the urban parcel and product delivery market. Navistar’s production at a shuttered Monaco Coach motor home plant in Elkhart, Ind., is expected to ramp up to make thousands of electric trucks with a 100-mile range, within a few years.

Others with plug-in electrics in the works: Smith Electric Vehicles U.S. and Altec Industries jointly are producing electric utility-type trucks with aerial ladders for Pacific Gas and Electric. Their plan is to manufacture thousands of plug-in trucks at Smith’s Kansas City, Mo., plant that would replace diesel- and gasoline-powered trucks on deliveries and service calls.

Manufacturers are also bringing out diesel hybrids for longer hauls of 100 miles or so, with Kenworth, Mack, Navistar and Peterbilt targeting large nationwide, regional and private fleets. The market won’t be confined to just the big-rig behemoths. Balqon Corp. is set to make medium-size battery-powered trucks at its Harbor City, Calif., plant that can haul seven tons of cargo and go 90 miles or so on a single charge.

Cost will limit the appeal of the fuel efficient rigs for several years. Hybrid diesels and electrics will initially run 40%-50% more than standard trucks. But in time, freight haulers and delivery companies will buy them in significant numbers. “Fuel economy is a huge issue for fleet owners due to the surge in diesel fuel prices in recent years,” especially firms such as retailers that can’t recoup fuel costs with surcharges, says Tim Kraus, president and COO of the Heavy Duty Truck Manufacturers Association, a trade group.

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But tough fuel standards likely in coming years will give them a jolt. Odds are Congress will adopt the recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences by early next year to nearly double standards for fleet owners who’ll then have to achieve an average of at least 15 miles per gallon for their truck fleets.

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