Not long after Mitch Smedley bought a Ford E-Transit van for his plumbing business last November, he sat down with receipts and a calculator to figure out how much the electric vehicle was saving him on fuel costs.
A few minutes of number crunching showed he was spending about $110 to $140 a week on fuel for each of the four older diesel Transits in his fleet. Then he figured out how much electricity he used to charge the electric model to drive the same distance — about 300 miles a week. Cost: about $9 per week.
“I knew there would be some savings because our electricity here is very cheap,” said Mr. Smedley, whose business is based in Blue Springs, Mo., east of Kansas City. “But I was amazed when I worked it out. It makes it really, really cheap to run.”
In the automotive industry transition to electric cars, passenger vehicles led the way. In the first quarter of 2023 sales of electric cars increased by 45 percent on 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 more electric models. Cox expects total annual electric vehicle sales in the U.S. market to top one million this year for the first time.
Light commercial vehicles make up a small proportion of all electric cars and trucks sold so far, but in many ways battery-powered vehicles are well-suited to work fleets. Since trucks and vans often travel limited distances or established routes each day, they do not need large and expensive batteries. Most can get by with enough power to go about 100 miles before needing a recharge.
One factor that makes electric cars significantly more expensive than internal combustion models is that consumers want the ability to go 250 or 300 miles on a single charge because they fear being stranded far from any place to plug in. Commercial vehicles usually park overnight in many locations. where they can be easily charged and ready in the morning with a full battery.
Electric trucks also require less maintenance than traditional vehicles. They don’t need oil changes and have no transmissions, shock absorbers or fuel pumps to wear or fail. And they don’t burn fuel when idling.
More than consumers, commercial fleet owners keep a close eye on 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 truck in order to save money over time through lower fuel and maintenance costs.
Still, commercial electric cars have gotten off to a slower start in sales, partly due to problems with several companies hoping to build them. Start-ups such as Lordstown Motors, Arrival and Canoo have struggled to start or ramp up production, as has Workhorse, a small utility truck maker. Rivian, a start-up backed Amazonhe hoped to now sell thousands of electric vans to online retailers, but fell far short of his goals.
The delay created an opportunity for Ford and GM, two of the nation’s largest automakers, to launch their own battery-powered work trucks. Derived from the Ford Transit commercial van, the E-Transit is available in a variety of sizes and can be used as a van, shuttle bus or work van for contractors, repairers, plumbers and other small businesses.
Ford sold about 6,500 E-Transits last year. In March, United States Postal Service ordered 9,250 E-Transits, which should be put into operation by the end of 2024.
GM created an independent BrightDrop division to make a larger vehicle tailored for package and cargo delivery. BrightDrop built a test fleet of about 500 battery vans to be delivered to customers in 2022, and this year began commercial production of its Zevo 600 model at a plant in Ontario.
Along with the truck, BrightDrop has developed an electric cart that allows drivers to pull many packages from the truck, reducing the number of trips the driver makes to and fro. One version of the truck is refrigerated for product and food deliveries.
In Hooksett, NH, Merchants Fleet, a company that manages vehicles used by delivery services, has used 150 BrightDrop vans in the past year and is eager to add more.
Brad Jacobs, the company’s vice president of fleet consulting, said the depreciation and interest costs of 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 anywhere from $10,000 to $12,000 a year because the fuel and maintenance costs are so much lower with electric vehicles,” he said. “If the company projects a five-year life, that’s a savings of $50,000 per vehicle. That is very convincing.”
Merchants Fleet has orders for 750 more BrightDrop trucks and reservations for another 17,000, Mr. Jacobs said.
Large delivery companies have been clamoring for electric trucks for years. Amazon hopes to buy up to 100,000 vans from Rivian and is considering the Ram ProMaster electric van, which Chrysler’s parent company, Stellantis, is expected to start producing this year.
UPS has ordered 10,000 electric vans from Arrival, a Luxembourg-based start-up with operations in Britain. Arrival suffered financial problems and production delays. FedEx plans to purchase only battery-powered vans from 2030 and hopes to operate an all-electric fleet by 2040. It is testing 150 BrightDrop trucks, taking delivery of another 350, and has reservations for another 2,000.
Nelson Granados, a FedEx delivery driver in Inglewood, Calif., has been using the BrightDrop for the past year, a white van with an orange-and-purple FedEx logo next to an image of a bright green plug and electrical cord.
Mr. Granados lifts the truck. The car has conveniences that diesel vans lack, such as a stereo and heated seats, as well as a lower floor that makes getting in and out easier.
“You’re getting on and off all day, so it pays off,” Mr Granados said. “It’s like a luxury van.”
Mr. Smedley, a plumber in the Kansas City area, noticed benefits to his E-Transit beyond fuel savings. On construction sites, the cart can power equipment such as waste cleaning machines, eliminating the need to lug around a generator. He’s started driving the van to Kansas City Chiefs football games — he has season tickets — so he can use its electrical outlets for parties. The truck also gives him premium parking in Arrowhead Stadium’s electric car spaces.
This year Mr Smedley decided to add a second electric model, a Ford, to his fleet F-150 Lightning pickup truck. He also continued to track the savings he is reaping from E-Transit.
“When I look at the cost in five years,” he said with a laugh, “it’s almost like getting free delivery.”