When Tesla cofounder Ian Wright left the company just a year after it launched, he argued that electric technology was too expensive for a typical car buyer. More than a decade later, electric and hybrid cars still only make up about half a percent of the total market in the U.S., and companies like Tesla are still struggling to bring the cost of batteries down. But Wright is working on something that he says makes sense now: Converting gas-guzzling delivery and garbage trucks to electricity.
“The thing about electric drive technology is it’s very efficient … but it’s not cheap,” Wright says. “So you’ve got to think about who’s going to pay the extra cost of these things. If you think about that hard enough, you realize that doing little city cars is the wrong end of things–they don’t burn enough fuel. Maybe 200 gallons a year. You can’t save enough money on that no matter what you do. You could save all of that and it’s not enough money to pay for the upgrade.”
A garbage truck, on the other hand, usually gets less than three miles per gallon and might cost $60,000 a year to fuel. Switching to a range-extended electric powertrain–which generates electricity from braking and an onboard turbine, and stores extra energy from the grid in a battery–can easily save enough money to pay back the cost of the new system within a few years.
Wrightspeed, the startup Wright founded to manufacture the new electric powertrains for trucks, also wants to help shift the country’s fleet of delivery vehicles. FedEx has just ordered 25 of the new powertrains to begin to retrofit its fleet. Because the technology goes inside old trucks, FedEx can more than double fuel efficiency, and more than halve CO2 emissions, without getting rid of its current stock of vehicles.
Since the trucks start and stop hundreds of times in a day, braking is an effective way to generate power. But the trucks also rely on a natural gas generator, which Wright explains is actually cleaner than charging a purely electric vehicle from the grid in most places.
“People intuitively think that nothing’s cleaner than an EV because there’s no tailpipe emissions, but of course the energy’s coming from power stations,” he says. “In the U.S., there’s quite a bit of coal. With our system…it’s actually cleaner if you don’t plug in.”
For something like a garbage truck, the technology can save 95% of NOx emissions, around 78% of particulates, and 58% of CO2. More pragmatically, it can save companies an enormous amount of money–meaning that it’s more likely than something like a luxury car to be widely adopted quickly, and have a significant impact on pollution.
“The thing about this is the economics of it,” Wright says. “The systems are not cheap, but we save enough fuel and enough maintenance that they pay for themselves in a short enough time that it becomes a no brainer. A CFO will look at this and say, ‘Yeah, there’s a short enough payback, and we’re going to save so much money after that–and take away our emissions problems off the table. Then it becomes a compelling thing.”