Beneath the glam of this city’s Mag Mile shopping district and its towering downtown buildings is an underground network of delivery streets and docks. In these darkened recesses where the wind doesn’t blow, the skyscrapers belch hot air and delivery trucks spew exhaust — except for one truck, a step van delivering hot dog and hamburger buns.
It idles noiselessly enough for passers-by to mistake it for being off, even with LED lights bathing the cabin.
The driver, Sean Sullivan, a 34-year veteran with Alpha Baking Co. in Chicago, shuts the gate in back, stomps up the aisle and takes his seat. He shifts the lever on the instrument panel, and the truck begins moving.
“The difference in driving the electric truck is it helps with concentration, the ability to hear ambulances and fire trucks more,” said Sullivan, 55. “Makes a big difference. If you’re sitting right on top of the diesel engine, you get nothing but that diesel engine. And the exhaust.”
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Sullivan considers himself one of the lucky few who get to drive the five electric medium-grade trucks in Alpha’s fleet of 52 other diesel trucks.
“We want to lessen our footprint as a company,” said Paul Nosalik, logistics manager of Alpha. “It’s the right thing to do. We’re not as dependent on foreign oil, not polluting, and we feel comfortable delivering to schools and nursing homes in the early morning.”
The only sound, aside from the squeak and clank of the suspension, is the backup alert. Most deliveries to residential areas shouldn’t be made until after 7 a.m., Sullivan said, but the silent electric truck enables earlier deliveries. Sullivan gets in Alpha’s delivery center at 2:30 a.m. and heads out at 4:30 a.m. to make 30 to 40 stops.
“I think it’s amazing,” said Joseph De Vito, an Alpha customer on Sullivan’s route who owns Busy Burger in a residential part of the Little Italy neighborhood. “I don’t see why every (delivery truck) isn’t electric.”
More step vans and medium-grade trucks are going mainstream, thanks to Ohio-based Workhorse, maker of electric step vans, pickup trucks and other electrified delivery vehicles, including an electric helicopter prototype.
“We focus on helping people deliver things,” said Steve Burns, CEO of Workhorse.
The publicly traded company sold two step vans to UPS, which then ordered 18 more, then 125, then an additional 200 last year.
The step van is technically a plug-in hybrid vehicle with a 60 kWh battery pack giving it a 60-mile range that can be doubled with the backup 2-cylinder gas generator, same as the BMW i3 electric car.
When the delivery route is done, between 10 a.m. and noon, Sullivan plugs it into a Level 2 (240-volt) charger and the truck has full power after six to eight hours of charging. Total output for the vehicle capable of hauling 19,500 total pounds is 268 horsepower.
Tesla is in the early stages of developing an all-electric pickup truck and a full-fledged semi.
Ryder, one of the nation’s largest medium-duty truck fleet management companies, agreed to an exclusive partnership with Chanje, maker of medium-grade all-electric trucks, the Los Angeles Times reported in August. Ryder customers can rent the electric trucks starting in California and expanding from there in 2018.
The use of electrified powertrains in delivery trucks is expected to grow globally to 332,000 by 2026 from 31,000 vehicles in 2016, according to a study by Navigant Research.
One big barrier of going electric is the steep initial cost.
The Workhorse plug-in step van costs about $30,000 more than a $60,000 diesel step van, Nosalik estimated. Alpha only considered it with a grant from the Chicago Area Clean Cities Coalition, a nonprofit consortium launched under the U.S. Department of Energy’s Clean Cities initiative to reduce petroleum in the transportation sector.