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High diesel costs spur electric trucks

U.S. President Barack Obama takes a look at batteries for electric trucks while touring Smith Electric Vehicles in Kansas City, Mo., July 8, 2010. Smith Electric Vehicles received a $32 million Recovery Act grant and produces all-electric, zero emissions commercial trucks.

Kai Ryssdal: Gas at almost $4 a gallon for a national average is the consumer mantra the past month or two. But diesel, the fuel that keeps America's trucks on the road, is more than $4 a gallon right now. You multiply that by tens of thousands of tractor-trailers and delivery trucks, and the companies that don't have the option of driving less are taking a big hit. Which is why some of them are considering alternative power.

Marketplace's Alisa Roth went along for a ride.


Alisa Roth: If you listen carefully, you might be able to hear what it sounds like when Daniel Ramos turns on his delivery truck. The truck looks like the ones around it in the supermarket parking lot -- a big boxy square. But it becomes clear why it's so quiet when he gets back to the warehouse at the end of his shift -- he doesn't fill it up at the pump.

He plugs it in.

Ramos delivers chips and other snack foods for Frito-Lay. His electric truck is part of a pilot project the company's been running to test alternatives to diesel.

Electric vehicles have limitations, which can make them a difficult sell to consumers. They have short ranges and there aren't very many public recharging stations. But those limitations don't matter as much for commercial vehicles, like delivery trucks. Bryan Hansel is CEO of Smith Electric Vehicles, which is the company that makes the truck Ramos drives.

Bryan Hansel: They load up overnight, they get in the morning, they drive in a pretty defined route every single day, come back and park at the same place.

Other companies -- for example, Coca Cola and Staples -- are also test-driving Smith electric trucks. And major truck-makers -- including Ford and Daimler -- are looking into building electric vehicles with commercial applications.

Mike O'Connell: The electric vehicles make a significant improvement in our operation.

Mike O'Connell is fleet manager at Frito-Lay. The company is trying to cut its fuel consumption in half over the next decade. He says even though electric trucks cost $20,000 to $40,000 more than their diesel counterparts, Frito-Lay's first few dozen are already starting to pay for themselves.

O'Connell: Today's fuel prices are running in excess of $4-a-gallon diesel; the economic return of those vehicles has been very good for us.

By the end of this year, Frito-Lay plans to have 175 electric trucks. That's out of a total fleet of 20,000 vehicles.

Daniel Ramos, the deliveryman, started driving the electric Frito-Lay truck about a year ago. He mostly loves it. But it doesn't have the muscle of his old diesel truck, which he says he notices as he accelerates onto the Williamsburg Bridge between Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Daniel Ramos: Diesel trucks, you can, it'll kick it a little faster. But still like at the same point, there's really no reason to be going over 30 over the bridge. Especially this bridge that they haven't fixed in years.

The truck -- which says it's electric in big letters on the side -- is a rolling ad for Frito-Lay's green program. But if you're not looking, you might not even know the truck is there. It's so quiet, pedestrians and cyclists are often oblivious to Ramos approaching.

Ramos: So just a little tootin' the horn and they look back and realize there's a truck there.

In New York, I'm Alisa Roth for Marketplace.

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Thanks for this great story. The only part that seemed strange is the fact that the new electric trucks have less pick up than the diesel version? Electric motors tend to have a whole lot more torque than their gas-powered counterparts, so it's hard to believe that this is actually the case. Was the truck actually comparable to the truck the driver was driving before? Or, is there some sort of limiter that would keep energy consumption down and the driver from expending the battery before he is done with his route?

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