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Smith Electric Trucks Could Transform U.S. Shipping

The maker of the U.K.'s electric "milk floats," is now owned by a U.S. company, and it has big plans for its electric truck fleets.


smith electric

Smith makes medium-duty electric trucks, and it has the market to itself. (Smith Electric photo)

Amazingly enough, dairy products in Britain are delivered by electric trucks called "milk floats," and have been for ages. A 90-year-old British company called Smith Electric makes those trucks, some of which have been on the road for 20 years or more. A fleet of 5,000 or more Smith trucks is working in the UK.

But Smith Electric Vehicles is British no more: On January 1, its Kansas City-based American subsidiary will complete a 51 percent buyout, leaving 49 percent in the hands of the UK-based Tanfield Group. That's good news, because Smith Electric is on a roll in the U.S. The company has developed a special niche – medium-duty electric box trucks – and it has orders for more than 200, including 176 for Frito-Lay and 41 for Staples. Other launch partners include Coca-Cola, AT&T and PG&E. They've all bought trucks, too, but CEO Bryan Hansel won't say how many.

I think Smith is a good bet, because no other company is currently playing in the same space and corporate America is looking to green its transportation fleets. If that can come with lower operating costs, so much the better. Ford has its Transit Connect electric van, but that's much smaller than the Smith trucks, which can be up to 24 feet long. And if the trucks were any bigger, it would be impractical to electrify them-18 wheeler EVs are not likely with current battery technology.

Hansel told me, "I see us sticking to our knitting with medium-duty electric trucks." He said that Frito-Lay will have all of its vehicles by the middle of 2011, and a number of new announcements are forthcoming about corporate partners. "We're visiting corporate headquarters and finding, to our surprise, that they already have us in their budgets." Hansel said.

mith electric

Staples truck from Smith: And wasn't that easy? (Smith Electric photo)

Some EV players (AMP Electric Vehicles, converter of the Chevy Equinox and Saturn Sky, comes to mind) are seeking an alliance with a major automaker. But Smith sees itself as an "original equipment manufacturer" automaker already. "I don't see us as building vehicles for someone else," Hansel said. "I don't think culturally or otherwise do we want to be a subcontractor when we have the knowledge and ability to be the OEM, to lead and not follow the market."

One major reason to build an automaker alliance is that it gives EV converters access to what are called "gliders" – much cheaper stripped cars or trucks minus engine and drivetrain. But Smith has truck cab gliders already, from a company called Avia in the Czech Republic. Those chassis are shipped to Kansas City, where 40 to 120-kilowatt-hour battery packs from Valence in Dallas are installed. The EV trucks have ranges between 40 and 150 miles, and cost (depending on battery pack) between $90,000 and $130,000. A diesel truck would be cheaper, but have much higher per-mile operating costs.

Many customers want standard box trucks, but Smith can also make garbage trucks, telephone line vehicles, refrigerated "reefers" and flatbeds. "We're looking at all those markets," Hansel said. The company is still very much a player in Europe, where Hansel said the most demand is for smaller trucks. Smith's Edison (which can be outfitted as a panel van or shuttle bus), caters to that market. And the Edison could have a future in the U.S. market as an airport shuttle vehicle.

Who wouldn't want to get picked up at the airport in an EV? I had the pleasant experience recently of flying into LAX and getting a ride into Santa Monica in a Chevy Volt. What a treat! An electric shuttle would definitely have a leg-up in green cities like Portland, Seattle and San Francisco. Would-be entrepreneurs should beat a path to Smith's door in Kansas City. I'm sure they can accommodate you.

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Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli is a senior writer at E/The Environmental Magazine, a regular contributor to the New York Times and author most recently of Naked in the Woods: Joseph Knowles and the Legacy of Frontier Fakery.
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