WAKARUSA — At first glance, the delivery vans undergoing final body assembly do not appear different from any other vehicle that Utilimaster Corp. has produced.
But look closer. On the production line, the hoods are missing from the front and the space where the diesel engine would sit is empty.
These are the new all-electric walk-in vans that Utilimaster, based in Wakarusa, and Smith Electric Vehicles, headquartered in Kansas City, Mo., have designed especially for the FedEx delivery fleet. Smith manufactures the chassis and power train, Utilimaster builds the body and A123 Systems, with corporate offices in Waltham, Mass., produces the lithium ion batteries.
During the first week of July, Utilimaster production crews were working to fulfill the order for 27 all-electric vans and expected to be finished in two days. Twenty five of the vehicles will be outfitted with a coat of crisp white paint and FedEx logos.
Utilimaster is one of two manufacturers in Wakarusa building all-electric vehicles – the other being Navistar International Corp. making the eStar at its plant on Nelson’s Parkway. Since 2010, Utilimaster has been building electric trucks for Frito-Lay which expands the company’s offerings that also includes propane, gas-electric hybrid and compressed natural gas along with traditional diesel- and gasoline-powered.
The electric walk-in van is the newest edition to Utilimaster’s portfolio.
“It’s not a real zowy-wowy vehicle but it hauls a lot of stuff,” said John Knudtson, vice president of new product development at Utilimaster.
FedEx is a familiar customer in Wakarusa. As part of its green initiatives, the delivery company has purchased eStars from Navistar as well as the Reach composite-body truck and, now, the all-electric vans from Utilimaster.
FedEx Express, a unit of FedEx Corp., has set the goal of making its vehicle fleet 20 percent more fuel efficient by 2020. In May, the carrier announced its fleet is 16.6 percent more fuel efficient through fiscal year 2011 than it was in 2005.
To date, FedEx has converted 20 percent of its pickup and delivery vehicles to models that have lower emission and, comparatively, sip petroleum.
“By pursuing the most promising avenues of advanced technologies, enlisting multiple experienced manufacturers and optimizing our vehicle operations, FedEx is reducing fuel use and emissions faster than expected,” Dennis Beal, vice president of global vehicles at FedEx Express, stated in a press release.
However, Knudtson emphasized green vehicles still have to perform. Indeed, the differences between the Utilimaster delivery van powered by electricity and the one powered by a diesel engine stops at the usage. Utilimaster and its design colleagues worked to create an alternative-fuel vehicle that drove like, functioned like and felt like a conventional-fuel truck.
The goal was to build a van that the FedEx carriers could adjust to very, very easily.
For example, in one of the original prototypes the battery pack, which was positioned underneath the body, protruded through the rear floor where the packages and parcels are placed, Knudtson said. FedEx gave a thumbs-down to the bumpy surface, which sent Utilimaster and Smith back to the design room.
The solution was to move the batteries a little lower and raise the floor about three inches. In turn, Utilimaster made each of the three steps leading into the back of the vehicle three-fourths of an inch higher.
Towards the end of the assembly line, the workers install the “engine” hoods onto the electric delivery vans and then the appearance becomes noticeably different from its diesel counterparts. The front part dips into the middle then curves upward, smoothly flowing into the slope of the windshield to slightly enhance the aerodynamics.
The van uses 80 kilowatts of electricity and has a range between 60 miles and 80 miles. Knudtson acknowledged it does have a higher price tag than fossil fuel vans (he did not give specific figures) but, he pointed out, customers will realize a cost savings since the electric van does not require the same amount of maintenance that an internal combustion engine does.
Also, companies can take advantage of the state and federal grants and incentives which will lower the purchase price.
“It’s good the government is helping this along a little bit,” he said.
Electric vehicles have appeared on roads in years past and even been in production at Utilimaster. Even though Knudtson is not sure one of the many alternative fuel options will be a clear victor over fossil fuel, he is confident that this time electric vans, trucks and cars will remain on the city and neighborhood streets.
“The technology is becoming a lot more viable,” he said. “The infrastructure is starting to be installed.”