The focus for Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs) has been passenger cars, specifically cars used for commuting. General Motors, for example, plans to come out with the Chevy Volt in 2011. The idea is that you plug in the car overnight and then you can drive it for up to 40 miles. After that, the Volt kicks over to a gasoline-powered generator that can extend the range for hundreds of miles. The better the infrastructure for drivers to plug in their cars, the more “green” drivers there would be. So, if a driver could plug in their car at the garage when they arrived at work, this would lessen the reliance on the range-extending gas generator.
In a few years, I predict that instead of just talking about PHEVs, we will also be talking about Plug-In Hybrid Electric Private Fleets. Hopefully, we won’t create another acronym for this. Moving to 5LAs (five letter acronyms) is more than my aging brain can deal with.
It strikes me that retailers with private fleets are in a good position to prove their green credentials by moving to a PHEV fleet of trucks. Unlike consumer goods manufacturers that often drive their fleets across several states to retailer distribution centers (DCs), a retailer’s stores are usually located within a relatively short distance of the retail DC supporting them. Further, from an infrastructure perspective, because the retailer owns the stores, providing battery stations at the store dock would be within their control. While store personnel are unloading the truck, the truck could be recharging.
I talked to Harry Forbes, a Senior Analyst at ARC Advisory Group focused on Smart Grid technologies, about this topic (you can read Harry’s Smart Grid blog here). According to Wikipedia, “a smart grid delivers electricity from utilities to users using two-way digital technology to control appliances [and PHEVs] at homes and workplaces to save energy, reduce cost, and increase the reliability of the electric grid. Such a modernized electricity network is being promoted by many governments as a way of addressing energy independence, global warming, and emergency resilience issues.”
Harry told me that in addition to emerging Smart Grid technologies, there are also emerging Smart Charging technologies. A “smart charger” would include logic, located either in the vehicle itself or more likely in the adapter that plugs into the power supply, that charges vehicles during off-peak hours when possible. These solutions will also need the ability for the driver to override the off-peak charging option if they so desire. Google is reportedly working on smart charging software for electric cars.
There is also an infrastructure play here. When charging a vehicle remotely at a site not owned by them, the driver will either need to be hooked up to a meter and pay some sort of charge card fee, or be able to identify themselves and get billed later. Several venture-funded startups are working on smart charger technologies.
In conclusion, some retailers are using route planning solutions to reduce delivery miles and as a way to show their commitment to being green. These solutions also have the advantage of saving retailers money, so it is a win-win for them. Retailers have also launched “green packaging” initiatives, which essentially costs them nothing because the costs are incurred by the manufacturer, but allows them to take credit for being green. Investing in a green private fleet would be a much more substantial demonstration of a retailer’s commitment to being environmentally friendly.