Promise for Electric Postal and Parcel Fleets

December 6, 2017

The holidays are upon us, and with the monstrous volume of gifts and greetings comes the practically incessant hum of mail and parcel fleets. All of which are seeking ways to efficiently, sustainably and cost-effectively operate their vehicles.

Advanced, clean transportation technologies certainly have their roles to play in achieving these goals, and one option in particular – electrification – is viewed as a potentially strong choice for postal and parcel delivery applications.

“There’s definitely a really good place for electrified vehicles in our fleet,” says Scott Phillippi, UPS’s senior director of maintenance and engineering, international operations.

The duty cycle of the vast majority of those brown trucks is nicely suited for EVs: Stop after stop means the vehicles are taking full advantage of regenerative braking technology to recharge the system’s batteries. When it comes time to take off again, the electric motor puts a ton of torque to the wheels for a responsive launch.

Considering that so many parcel and mail delivery vehicles operate in both densely populated urban centers and in sprawling suburbs, it is no surprise that the environmental benefits of EVs are top of mind.

Moreover, the vehicle range offered by many EV platforms (about 50 miles on a charge) often pairs well with what UPS needs. (Phillippi does note, however, that 125 miles per charge is necessary to cover the most demanding UPS routes.) Additionally, UPS’s ground delivery fleet sits idle all night: a perfect opportunity for recharging vehicles without extensive fast-charge infrastructure.

EVs’ drive-by-wire technologies are also advantageous, he explains. Driver safety is enhanced, as vehicle propulsion (along with braking and traction control, in some systems) is controlled inherently right at the accelerator. In effect, EVs are the ultimate technology for stop-start applications, which is precisely the domain of UPS’s delivery operations.

Although the well-to-wheel carbon footprint of all-electric, hybrid-electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles is often difficult to pinpoint, there is little question that these vehicles offer huge improvements in tailpipe emissions relative to gasoline and diesel engines. Indeed, all-electric vehicles’ zero tailpipe emissions is a “crucial” aspect of their increasing presence in UPS’s fleet, Phillippi says.

Considering that so many parcel and mail delivery vehicles operate in both densely populated urban centers and in sprawling suburbs, it is no surprise that the environmental benefits of EVs are top of mind.

Striving for cleaner air through fleet-technology advancements is not a new concept. FedEx Express began working with the Environmental Defense Fund in 2000 to develop commercial hybrid EVs for fleet use; the company rolled out its first hybrid delivery trucks into regular service on FedEx Express routes in 2004. Today, FedEx has more than 500 hybrids in service.

All-electric delivery vehicles are even more prominent in the FedEx fleet. Thomas Griffin, FedEx’s strategic operations technical principal, says all-electric vehicles have been a part of the company’s pickup/delivery fleet since 2009. At the end of fiscal-year 2016, FedEx operated 1,817 all-electric vehicles.

These numbers, however, are still quite low, considering that operations such as UPS and FedEx maintain fleets of more than 100,000 units. Why the lag for EVs?

“I’d like to see an electrified solution that is cost-effective, and the sustainability is just the icing on the cake,” Phillippi remarks.

“EVs do offer advantages in emissions reduction, reduced energy consumption and operational costs,” Griffin remarks. “But increased production volumes and operational range are still needed in order to have a transformational impact on commercial transportation in the near term.

“While EVs have potential in the pickup and delivery space, the challenges with them are limited commercial vehicle production scale, serviceability, operational battery range and initial acquisition costs,” he explains.

Phillippi echoes that sentiment, particularly as it pertains to OEM vehicle offerings and OEM support. It has been challenging, he says, to deploy EVs at a small scale (10 to 15 all-electric vehicles per facility) without OEM backing. The risk of having a stranded fleet is high, and that is a risk UPS needs to weigh carefully.

Choices from both large and small OEMs are coming into focus, though.

“We’re seeing some options that are pretty attractive to us,” Phillippi says.

For instance, UPS recently leased a trio of FUSO eCanter vehicles from Daimler Trucks unit Mitsubishi Fuso Truck and Bus Corp. for testing. The eCanter offers load capacity of up to 7,000 lbs. and a range of about 60 miles.

UPS has also deployed 125 of Workhorse’s E-GEN extended-range hybrid-electric trucks, with an order of 200 additional units in the pipeline. The company also operates 18 all-electric Workhorse trucks in the Houston area.

The U.S. Postal Service, too, is in the midst of its quest to develop “a future class of delivery vehicles” –  ones that use new technology to not only improve service, but also to reduce emissions and yield operational savings. The USPS has dubbed this the Next Generation Delivery Vehicles (NGDV) initiative.

The organization could not comment about the vehicle manufacturers currently taking part in the NGDV prototype development process or about their prototypes, but the USPS’s Kim Frum confirms that hybrid electric vehicles are among the prototypes currently being tested at the USPS’s test facility in Ohio. Field testing of those prototypes will follow in the coming months.

“This testing will provide the Postal Service with valuable information to consider with other factors (i.e., technical features, carrier feedback, durability and total cost of ownership) in order to make informed decisions about the future of our vehicle fleet,” Frum says.

Ultimately, however, in order for any fleet to make electrification work for them, the numbers need to make sense.

“I’d like to see an electrified solution that is cost-effective, and the sustainability is just the icing on the cake,” Phillippi remarks.