FedEx's Electric Vehicle Experiment

Photograph by James Burt Pittman

At a FedEx package distribution center in lower Manhattan, amid the forklifts, carts, and conveyer belts that send thousands of packages out for delivery every day, are 10 vehicles that look like something out of the Jetsons. They’re FedEx’s electric-powered delivery vans, and they’re part of a study by FedEx, Columbia University, and General Electric. The idea behind their initiative is this: To switch from gasoline to electric-powered vehicles, a national delivery service must have a convenient and cost-effective way to charge them.

FedEx has been quietly dipping its toe into the electric vehicle, or EV, market since it deployed a few vans on London delivery routes in 2008. Currently, the company has 43 EVs in service—in the U.S., you can find them in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. It isn’t the only company to use electric delivery vehicles; UPS has 29 and Frito-Lay (whose parent company is PepsiCo) has 176 electric trucks running potato chips and other goods to stores across the U.S. and Canada. All three companies are part of the Obama administration’s National Clean Fleets Partnership. But the ones at FedEx are special because they’re part of an important experiment.

At a distribution center in Chicago, FedEx is currently testing several different vehicles designed by different companies to find the most cost-efficient and reliable model for large-scale, national use. In New York, the question to be solved has to do with the city’s power grid.

“I believe electric vehicles are a great solution to our energy and pollution problems, but the way most cities are designed now, for a company like FedEx to use them, there’s a lot of red tape,” says Keshav Sondhi, FedEx’s manager of global vehicles. In other words, you can’t just install some electric sockets, invest in a few oversize cords, and plug the trucks in. The electric bill would be too high, and neither FedEx nor the power companies yet know how such an increase in power demand would affect the city’s grid.

The problem, Sondi explains, is that each of these vans “requires the same amount of energy as an average suburban house.” If FedEx were to use an entire fleet of electric vans—roughly 100 to 200 vehicles per delivery center—when they recharged, their energy demands would be equivalent to a small neighborhood. And although they can go 100 miles per charge (and carry 3,300 lbs. of packages), once depleted they take eight hours to reach full capacity again.

“If you charged them at the same time, you’d overload the system, and there would be a blackout,” says Leon Wu, researcher for Columbia University’s Center for Computational Learning Systems, which is working with FedEx on the project. “Or the transformer will explode. It would happen.”

But unlike a neighborhood, vehicles don’t need constant electricity. Maybe they could be charged in waves or partially charged. Wu and his fellow researchers are analyzing data from the trucks and their GE-supplied chargers to find a solution. GE has also installed electric meters to track the flow of energy into and out of the vehicles.

“We want to know how much electricity is going into the charging station, how many times each truck is being recharged, how many trips they take, and how far they go—all the electric parameters that come with a vehicle like this,” says Matt Nielsen, GE Global Research’s lead scientist on the project. “We’re trying to bring in data from a lot of different sources.”

That the electric vehicle still requires this much study—much less one requiring the expertise of GE and Columbia University scientists—is testament to its beleaguered history. FedEx’s current EVs cost two to three times as much as traditional delivery vans, although the company estimates that its operational costs per mile are 75 percent lower than those powered by gas. According to delivery driver Lamar Wilkinsin, the futuristic-looking vans prompt questions and stares when he drives them through lower Manhattan—the same place where electric taxis first traveled as early as 1897.

Whatever the outcome, FedEx’s experiment will be closely watched. Sondhi says he has already been approached by the Defense Department, which may be interested in learning how to equip bases for electric automobiles. Even EV experts such as Frito-Lay could learn a thing or two; right now, because of energy constraints, Frito-Lay has no more than 20 vehicles at any one warehouse and sometimes has to partner with utility companies to bring more energy into the buildings to accommodate them.

FedEx’s EV recharging experiment is set to end in 2013. The company will then assess its options for expanding its use of electric vans—something Wilkinsin hopes they’ll do. He has been driving FedEx delivery trucks for 16 years and says the EVs are the best vans the company has ever given him. They have a tighter turning radius, and their nearly silent ride make his delivery shifts much more enjoyable. “I try to grab them first,” he says. “But they’re pretty popular, and there are only 10 of them. Sometimes the other drivers get to them before me. I try not to resort to the old trucks.”

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