KANSAS CITY — Trucks make a lot of noise, right? Well, not the truck I’m driving around the outskirts of the Kansas City airport. It’s a 24-foot Smith Electric Vehicles box truck, powered by 80 kilowatt-hours of lithium-ion batteries and a whomping 140-kilowatt motor. There’s a faint motor whine, but mostly I’m hearing the slap of tires on tarmac.
I used to drive a school bus, so handling the big, nearly horizontal steering wheel and checking the rear-view mirrors in lieu of any rear vision is old hat for me. The electric truck was so easy to drive you could give me a New York City route right now.
I was in KC to see electric trucks get put together (right), as a fledgling market grows. For urban deliveries, battery power makes sense. It fits city emission-reduction plans, and distances are small enough that the 80-mile range isn’t a challenge. Frito-Lay now has 176 of these trucks (with more than a million fleet miles), Duane Reade (pharmacies in New York) has 14, Pepsi and Coca-Cola both have fleets, and both Red Bull and Odwalla are new customers.
I’ve been to dozens of auto factories, and they’re usually loud, clanging affairs with overhead delivery systems and shooting sparks. Kansas City produces two trucks a day, 40 a month, for the American market. It is soon to be complemented by a second plant in, of all places, the Bronx, New York. According to Jesse Shroyer, Smith’s government relations and incentives manager, it’s been something like 30 years since anyone built a factory in the Bronx.
Unlike the many electric startups, Smith has a long history — it was founded as Northern Coachbuilders in Newcastle-on-Tyne, England in 1920. The company made trolley cars and milk delivery trucks, what the British call “milk floats.” The American subsidiary bought out the British parent for $15 million last year.
The refocused Smith sees a golden opportunity in the Big Apple, not only because it’s been showered with state and city subsidies, but because New York is a prime market for the company. Within a matter of months, Smith will be assembling its trucks in a former lighting warehouse in the Hunts Point neighborhood (which has some of the worst air quality in the city).
The trucks are built up from Avia chassis and cabs that come from the Czech Republic without the diesel engines usually on this platform. Three chassis or six cabs fit in a sea container, I’m told. Each electric truck is assembled by a single, two-person team, which follows it to completion. There’s no moving assembly line, just a few overhead cranes to lift the cabs onto the bodies. I saw big trays of battery packs, controllers, motors and other components. It’s not awesomely high-tech, more like a big Erector set. A radio played the hits, but it was otherwise pretty quiet. Here's a video look from the shop floor:
Plant manager Bob Lucas took me around, and I asked him why all the trucks are white. “From here, they go to the upfitters who add the box, or turn the trucks into flatbeds, refrigeration trucks, even a mobile office in one case,” he said. “They also paint them to suit — the Red Bull trucks are silver.”
Smith has an expanding product line. The 12-ton, 24-foot box truck is the standard bearer, but on the same chassis are stepvans like the one in the photo above (two are already in service as FedEx delivery vehicles in Colorado) and school buses. Smith is also mulling a larger, 15-ton truck that could be used for larger beverage deliveries by Coke and other customers. Coke trucks like the one below are already on the road around the country.
In some ways, the commercial electric vehicle business is moving faster than the passenger car side. Big companies buying electrics get green credibility, low operating costs, efficient fleet operations, federal, state and local subsidies, the appreciation of neighbors (who aren’t woken up by loud diesel engines), driver buy-in and other benefits. Bright Automotive, based in nearby Indiana, failed in this space, but new company Emerald Automotive is building a plant in St. Louis to produce lightweight plug-in hybrid delivery vans. Emerald is intriguing, because it was formed by former employees of Fisker, Lotus and Tesla, and offers stunning styling, plus 475 miles of range. The British post office is an early customer.
Perhaps buoyed by Tesla Motors’ successful initial public offering, Smith tried an IPO of its own, with plans to sell 4.22 million shares for $16 to $18 each. That plan has now been put on hold. According to Shroyer, “Investors told us they wanted to see a few more quarters of growth from the company. In the meantime, we can work with the private markets.” Smith has raised approximately $125 million to date, Shroyer said.
The EV market remains volatile. Lucas says the demise of Bright wasn’t good news for Smith, because more companies in the space reduce the price of batteries, controllers and other components. Of more immediate concern to Smith is the bankruptcy of its battery supplier, A123. But that company’s assets are being acquired by battery giant Johnson Controls, and Lucas said, “They’ve assured us we can maintain our current production levels.”
The electric truck remains a niche. We’re not going to see electric 18-wheelers anytime soon, because batteries aren’t up to the task. Natural gas is more likely to get that duty. But every time you see a noisy diesel making an urban delivery, just think how much nicer it would be if it was a silent electric.
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