NEW YORK CITY — I’m in the middle of all the Times Square craziness — Spider Men and Mickey Mice walking around, folks handing out dubious literature with a hearty “check it out.” And I’m sitting in a truck, operated by New York’s ubiquitous Duane Reade pharmacy chain.


Believe it or not, this big 24-foot delivery truck —i n a fleet of more than a dozen — is all-electric, built by Smith Electric Vehicles, which is soon to start producing its zero-emission battery behemoths in the Bronx. Charles Hayward, the company’s fleet operations manager, tells me Duane Reade is wildly enthusiastic about its electric trucks, and so are Frito-Lay, Pepsi and other customers who are using them in New York.


It’s been a while since I checked in on Smith for MNN, and a lot has happened. The company, which plans to go public, got city, state and federal grants to build its trucks in an economically challenged corner of the Bronx, and CEO Bryan Hansel told me this week that a lease was signed last month. The building is being outfitted and could be producing vehicles in New York (it also has a factory in Kansas City) as early as the end of the year. As in KC, it’s intended to turn out 100 trucks a month.


Last March, Smith announced it was building a walk-in delivery vehicle for FedEx, based on its Newton platform. That truck was in New York, though not in FedEx livery as of yet. A range of 100 miles is claimed. A school bus was in the pipeline the last time I checked in with Smith, but there it was, across from the FedEx truck.


“The school bus, also based on the Newton platform, is a perfect application for us, given the duty cycle,” said Hansel. What he means is that school buses start and stop a lot, which is great for capturing energy through regenerative braking. Only a few have been built so far, with production likely to resume in the fourth quarter of this year. The Kings Canyon Unified bus I saw was in service for a few months in California and performed well.


The truck I’m sitting in with Hayward is a Gen II product, which means flat prismatic instead of cylindrical battery cells. Also on board is a new permanent magnet motor. Hansel says the smaller pack allows better ground clearance for the trucks which, let’s face it, confront a lot of hazards on the mean streets of New York. A cool screen lets drivers know if their driving performance is in the green zone.


Seen from a building’s upper floors, the Duane Reade truck’s roof proclaims, “Hey, relax, I’m not the one making noise down here.” Maybe you have to have spent time in New York to get that, but it refers to the early-morning delivery trucks that idle outside residents’ windows at 4 a.m.


“We’re seeing more torque and more power,” said Hayward, who recently leased an additional 10 electric trucks (that's one at left) to get the fleet to 14, the largest in New York. “The batteries are down 20 percent in weight and size, and that really helps. You know, when we first leased these trucks we brought Smith in for two days of training. Some drivers were skeptical, but now we’re seeing a high level of acceptance. They see it’s real, and the trucks do what we said they’d do.”


Duane Reade is seeing a “real world” 70 miles of range from its trucks. “We always make it back to base,” Hayward said. “The regenerative braking [which captures waste energy from braking and decelerating and stores it in the batteries] is absolutely great. I had one of our drivers call me in the middle of the night to tell me that the best thing Duane Reade ever did was lease these trucks. He could have waited until morning. The bottom line is that these trucks work, and they’re reliable.”


The Milea Truck Group, also based in the Bronx, not only leased the vehicles to Duane Reade but also built the cargo boxes, through a division, Continental Truck Body, that’s also in the city. Steven Dorn, a vice president of Milea, told me that the electric trucks will be all-New York affairs, from cabs to boxes. He added that Duane Reade will be pioneering wireless charging with the trucks, and also trying out a hydrogen-powered fuel-cell version that carries a tank of methanol.  


Here's Hansel on videotape talking about the importance of the new stepvan. Note that the Kansas City operations now employ 100 people — a similar blow against high unemployment rates is hoped in New York:



Something like a million vehicles of all types enter New York City every day. There are delivery trucks everywhere. There are only a tiny percentage are zero-emission electric now, but the numbers are growing exponentially. Everybody likes ‘em, including Mayor Mike Bloomberg.


Related electric vehicle story on MNN: 7 electric cars to watch in 2012 [Photos]


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