A New Manhattan Project: Electric Trucks

If you think one truck is much like another, talk to Frank Rubino. His all-electric pickup and delivery truck — a 26,000 pound gross vehicle weight straight truck from Smith Electric Vehicles — isn’t quite like any truck I’ve been in before.

Yes, it looks like a straight truck, but there are big and little differences.

There’s no gearbox, no shifting. There’s no engine under the cab, just a computer. There’s no fuel tank — though you will see a set of big, blocky batteries — and there’s a charger where the truck is “plugged in.” And it’s extremely quiet.

“It’s a lot nicer being in the cab, because you’re not sitting on top of a diesel engine,” Rubino says. In fact, it’s almost too quiet. “You have to make sure pedestrians know you’re moving or going to move, because they can’t hear you start up.”

Rubino, gave me a top-to-bottom look at the truck July 1 in New York City, where he’s been delivering freight for New Deal Logistics, South Kearny, N.J., for 14 years.

Since March, NDL has been running a pair of electric trucks and Rubino has become the carrier’s electric vehicle expert. “It’s like driving a big golf cart,” he says.

A golf cart that can haul 10,000 pounds — that’s a lot of golf clubs. Not only that, but he’s driven the truck over streets, bridges and potholes in all five boroughs — though with its low-hanging traction batteries, you try to avoid the potholes.

These lithium-iron phosphate batteries store the vehicle’s power, provided by a charging station and regenerative braking, just as in a hybrid car or truck.

When he first began driving the truck, Rubino worried about how long the charge would last. Would he get stuck on the Cross Bronx Expressway or Verrazano Bridge? “I used to tell them, ‘Just send me to Manhattan, don’t send me to JFK,’” he says.

He learned that by selecting the right routes and using regenerative braking, he rarely has to worry about running out of battery life. “The longest run I’ve had was 115 miles and I got back and still had 22 percent on the batteries,” he says.

“Once and a while during the day I look at it to see what my charge is, but we have so much power in these batteries that I can go for two days with these runs we do in the city before I have to charge the truck,” Rubino says.

What’s truly astounding is the energy savings of 80 percent compared with a diesel truck. That surely hastens the ROI on what’s still quite an expensive vehicle. NDL bought its two trucks using a $300,000 grant from the city and state of New York.

Back at the terminal, the vehicle is plugged in using the charger above. A full charge is supposed to take six to eight hours, though Rubino says it’s often much quicker.

In the truck cab, a standard transmission gearshift is replaced by a tiny toggle switch that puts the truck into drive, neutral or reverse. “No shifting, less things to do, it’s very simple,” he said, pulling out onto 14th Street.

A computer mounted above the driver tracks how much energy is being generated by braking and “dumped” back into the batteries, and how much charge is left.

Rubino drives down 14th Street to First Avenue, where we hang a left and head uptown to make a delivery on 42nd Street. Starting from a stop light, the truck shows surprising get-up-and-go, pulling away smoothly and quickly.

“It’s quite peppy compared with a diesel up to about 35 mph,” he says.

So far the trucks have held up well to rugged operating conditions. Rubino is looking forward to seeing how well they handle a New York winter.

He not only enjoys driving the truck, it’s opened new doors for him.

“I’ve driven it to schools, where I’m amazed by how much the kids know about electric vehicles,” he said. The company has sent him to courses, and he’s working with engineers from Smith Electric to perfect the vehicle.

And he’s become an ambassador of sorts for electric vehicles on his daily route. “I get lots of questions from pedestrians, and especially from other drivers.”

My thanks to Frank Rubino (left), NDL owner and COO Joe Killeen (center) and driver Chubb Chang.

--Contact William B. Cassidy at wcassidy@joc.com.

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