But like the image in a rear-view mirror, nearly silent, plug-in trucks – and the jobs they could create as manufacturing of them increases – may be a lot "closer than they appear," observers say.
Early market studies suggest that as much as 30 percent of urban work trucks could be standard (Toyota Prius-like) gas-electric hybrids by 2020, according to Calstart, a Pasadena-based, clean transportation technology organization that works with about 130 companies nationwide. Another 5 to 10 percent could be plug-in hybrid (electric mainly with small gas engine) or all-electric trucks.
"What we're seeing is confluence of more robust electric technology, steadily decreasing battery costs, and concern about the fuel-price roller coaster," says Bill Van Amburg, senior vice president for Calstart. "That has produced a stronger business case for companies to move toward electrifying their fleets."
Another huge factor boosting the business case for electric trucks is the president's call for new fuel efficiency standards for commercial trucks. There have never been any standards for trucks weighing over 8,000 pounds, Mr. Van Amburg says. But by fall, the Obama administration expects to propose the first new fuel economy and carbon emissions standards for trucks. Those standards would be implemented by 2014.
With fuel prices expected to rise over the long term – and new fuel standards coming in – signs of business interest are popping up. Navistar already has an all-electric delivery truck in early production. Another big truck maker, Freightliner, is making all-electric parcel delivery trucks, too. Calstart's last hybrid truck users forum, which focuses on speeding commercialization of hybrid and plug-in technology into the truck market, had 550 members, including 80 fleets and most major truck makers and systems suppliers.