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Can We Run 18-Wheelers on Batteries?

When President Obama announced the awarding of $2.4 billion in funding for electric vehicles (EVs) and battery manufacturing yesterday, the big news was that Michigan, the Big Three and established companies with an established connection to Ford, Chrysler or GM (and especially the Chevy Volt) made out well. Start-up companies did not fare well, but there are other funding announcements to come.

Bound to be overlooked in all the fuss were the smaller awards to the smaller companies, even when the funding makes an important point. Is the electric car revolution all about cars? It shouldn't be. Ever since the U.S. began to shift commercial shipping from rail to truck (in the 1920s) we've faced highway gridlock and diesel pollution, not to mention a security nightmare--a few well-placed terrorist attacks on highways could paralyze interstate shipping.

With Commerce Secretary Gary Locke in attendance, the Department of Energy awarded $10 million to little-known Smith Electric Vehicles, which makes fairly large battery trucks in Kansas City, Missouri. The DOE grant, by cutting the final price to customers by as much as half, will speed the delivery of the company's trucks into major commercial fleets operated by AT&T, Coca-Cola, Frito-Lay, Staples and Pacific Gas & Electric. (Staples got the keys to the first truck last week.)

For me, a big question is this: How much of American long-distance hauling could ultimately be moved by electric trucks. T. Boone Pickens told me that 18-wheelers will never be able to run on batteries, and that's why he advocates natural gas power for them. But is he right? I asked Smith CEO Bryan Hansel who, at the Kansas City ceremony, had hailed "the potential today for tens of thousands of electric trucks in the fleets of corporate America."

Hansel says that, with current battery technology, 18-wheeler EVs wouldn't work. "Those trucks travel hundreds of miles in a day, and to have them stop every 60 or 70 miles for a lengthy recharge would not be a duty cycle that would make any sense," he said. "You could put a great big electric motor on one of those rigs, but it would be pointless right now."

But Hansel notes the huge resources going into battery technology today, and thinks the time of the 18-wheel EV will arrive. He cites Moore's law for computers, and thinks that recharge times will be cut in half and range doubled. "In the future, we'll be able to electrify almost everything on wheels," he said.

The electric Smith Newton (which costs $150,000) is the size of a large delivery van; it can reach 30 feet, carrying a 22-foot box. It has a top speed of 50 mph, a 100-mile range, and a 16,000-pound payload. The smaller Transit Connect is intended for city duty, can carry 1,600 pounds and reach 70 mph. It's zero to 30 time is faster than the gasoline equivalent.

Smith is opening a new Kansas City plant to provide what it calls "green collar" jobs. It targets the same basic market as Rocky Mountain Institute spinoff and Indiana-based Bright Automotive, which builds a plug-in hybrid van targeted at some of the same commercial fleets.

Smith is privately held and owned by Private Investors Management and the Tanfield Group Plc, which also owns the venerable Smith Electric Vehicles of Britain (launched in the 1920s). The Newton truck has been on European roads for three years, and is used for mail and parcel delivery, logistics, retail highway maintenance and airports.

The new plant opens next month, giving Smith U.S. production. The company has been importing finished trucks (based on Avia "gliders" from the Czech Republic) that were assembled at its sister plant in England.

The commercial market can be lucrative. The Japanese postal service, for instance, is converting its fleet of 22,000 delivery trucks to electric operation, and U.S.-based Ener1 (also a DOE recipient) and Think Global are two contractors on that project.