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In London, electric trucks are helping UPS make ‘eco-friendly’ deliveries
[LONDON] There is something new in Kentish Town, an up-and-coming north London neighborhood. Many of the distinctive, brown delivery vans coming out of a UPS depot in the area are silent except for a humming sound as they roll down the high street past the craft shop London Bead Co. and the Middle Eastern food emporium Phoenicia.
Drivers say the trucks, which have "electric vehicle" written on the sides in gold lettering, draw comments from passers-by. "They are asking, ‘How can that big vehicle be electric?'" said Maciej Boczek, after delivering a package to a Victorian rowhouse.
The vans gliding through the streets are part of a plan by the company, backed by the British government, to electrify its full central London fleet of about 170 vehicles, all based in a high-ceiling garage near a railroad line in Kentish Town.
The goal is to replace diesel vans, a source of CO2 emissions and harmful air pollution, with electric-power vehicles, which don't emit exhaust fumes. "It is being made very clear to us by cities, national governments, the EU and beyond that the conventional diesel truck is no longer what they want," said Peter Harris, director of sustainability for UPS Europe.
The company has converted about one third of its diesel vehicles to electric power, but UPS executives say that through their experiments here, they have solved problems like high costs and putting too much strain on the power grid.
If so, they may be able to run their whole fleet in London and other cities on electric power as economically as on fossil fuels.
"We are approaching the point where the cost of deploying an electric vehicle into our operations, including the power supply requirements, will match or beat deploying a diesel," Harris said. Reaching that point would be a "game changer" for businesses like UPS because switching to electric vehicles would not only meet environmental goals, but also be "the commercially advantageous thing to do," he said.
Harris and others said the lessons UPS was learning in Kentish Town might be applicable to a wide range of urban vehicles across the globe, including buses and ambulances.
Like other transportation companies, UPS is under pressure from city and national governments to convert its delivery fleets from diesel. Cities in Europe are plagued by poor air quality partly because of vehicle traffic emitting noxious gases. Some, including London, impose a daily charge on diesel and gasoline vehicles entering city centers that exempt electric vehicles. UPS customers are also increasingly making low-emissions standards a requirement, Harris said.
Switching to electric vehicles, though, as UPS has discovered, is not simple. Fleet vehicles like those UPS operates are logical candidates for conversion because they stick to similar daily routes, only go limited distances and come home to the same building. Yet making the switch to electricity has proved challenging and expensive.
Delivery trucks that would meet the company's standards were not readily available, UPS said, forcing the company to the awkward step of converting used diesel trucks to electricity.
In addition, the power grids in London and elsewhere in Britain are not robust enough to meet the hefty demand for electricity that large numbers of trucks plugging in at once might create.
The limit on the UPS setup was about 65 vehicles, which the company has reached. Even that ceiling was a stretch because the company also runs power-hungry conveyor belts for loading and sorting packages in the early morning as well as space heaters.
UPS wanted to electrify its full central London fleet. Rather than paying for heavy cabling and other power-grid upgrades — something it had done once previously — the company decided to go another route. Taking advantage of advances in digital applications for electric power, UPS is using a "smart grid" to manage charging vehicles.
UPS had the company UK Power Networks Services install a computer system that used software and other gear to monitor how much electricity was flowing into charging vehicles and to spread it out through the night so that no additional power upgrades in the neighborhood around the depot were required.
The system also includes a large battery as backup in case the system reaches its limits. The whole operation can be monitored on a computer screen that shows which trucks are being charged, how much electricity is flowing into each one and other activities.
The British government put up about half the cost of about 2.6 million pounds, or us$3.4 million. The government wants to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions, about one-third of which in the transport sector comes from freight traffic, and other pollution. British authorities also want to help the car industry. Authorities worry about losing markets in Europe and investment by car manufacturers if, as expected, Britain exits the European Union next year. The government says it wants to spend 1.5 billion pounds over the next few years to try to help secure the auto industry's future through investing in low-emission vehicles that it assumes will become increasingly prevalent.
UPS is sufficiently encouraged by what it has seen to engage the London-based company Arrival to develop a new fleet of 35 lightweight electric trucks for trials in London and Paris. UPS says these vehicles will be designed for urban operations with safety features like wraparound windshields so that drivers can more easily spot pedestrians and bicyclists. The first prototypes are expected in a few months.