Why Don’t Commercial Plug-In Trucks And Vans Sell?

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This week Boulder Electric Vehicles announced that it was ceasing production of its commercial electric vans. It’s just the latest commercial plug-in startup to call it quits, and major automakers haven’t had any more luck convincing business owners to go electric. It’s a numbers game, and for many fleet operators, the numbers don’t add up.

Boulder Electric joins a growing number of commercial plug-in start-ups that have declared bankruptcy or been bought up. Earlier this year Smith Electric Vehicles ceased production after filing a $127 million loss, only to receive a $42 million investment to finish out the orders it had already received. Echo Automotive, which had purchased the technology of another failed start-up, Bright Automotive also justthrew in the towel, and AMP Electric hasn’t had much to announce other than the completion of testing of a medium-duty electric van.

What do all these companies have in common? Boulder Electric CEO Carter Brown summed it up nicely in an interview with the Los Angeles Daily News; “No one was biting off significant orders that would support full scale manufacturing,” Brown said.

That problem was the initial upfront costs were often tens of thousands of dollars more, but with many more limitations. The Boulder Electric van could go up to 100 miles per charge and could haul up to 6,500-lbs of payload, but at $70,000 you could literally buy two conventional vans with just as much capacity. Even at an estimated $20,000 in saved fuel costs spread out across years of use, the numbers still don’t add up.

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Range anxiety was a legitimate concern for all-electric Boulder and Smith EVs, but both Bright and Echo Automotive used a longer plug-in hybrid setup that still didn’t resonate with buyers. Automotive powerhouse Eaton discontinued its line of hybrid-electric work trucks, saying in an interview with TruckingInfo that there simply isn’t much of a market for such vehicles without government incentives. VIA Motors has been talking up its plug-in hybrid pickup truck for years now, but aside from a few pilot programs, VIA has seen little market penetration.

That’s not to say every plug-in commercial vehicle is failing; XL Hybrids, whose simpler, easy-to-install retrofit hybrid system promises 20% better fuel economy, seems to be making all the right moves. The BAE HybriDrive system is also in use in numerous bus fleets across the country, and the company is field testing a truck setup currently. But as far as a major company committing to a plug-in fleet or large commercial? It just hasn’t happened yet.

Even OEMs seem to be having a hard time entering the commercial electric vehicle market. Ford’s short-lived deal with Azure Dynamics to build electric versions of the Transit Connect van comes to mind, and the Nissan e-NV200 electric van has only just come to the European market nearly four years after the Nissan LEAF debuted. The Renault Kangoo Z.E. electric van has also fared miserably in the French market despite almost a total lack of competition, and Chrysler pulled the plug on its test fleet of plug-in hybrid pickups.

It seems businesses both big and small aren’t ready to buy the plug-in car hype, and there are only three things I can think of to get them to change their collective mind; lower costs, higher driving range, or more government incentives. Until the technology gets better or the costs come down, going green doesn’t yet make business sense.

 

Christopher DeMorro

A writer and gearhead who loves all things automotive, from hybrids to HEMIs, can be found wrenching or writing- or else, he's running, because he's one of those crazy people who gets enjoyment from running insane distances.