The Tesla of Garbage Trucks Could Help Clean Up Urban Air
Last month I learned how to drive a delivery truck. Not because I’m considering a career change, but because I had the opportunity to test out an innovative new truck technology that could help improve urban air quality. It’s a retrofit for medium-duty trucks, such as delivery trucks and garbage trucks, that can improve fuel efficiency and reduce smog and particle emissions by 90 percent.
Although we’re making great strides in improving fuel efficiency and cutting pollution from cars and light-duty trucks like pickups, cleaning up bigger—and let’s face it, less exciting—vehicles like delivery trucks has lagged behind. But now there’s a bit of glamour behind clean truck technology. The retrofit I tested was developed by a small California company called Wrightspeed. Its CEO, engineer Ian Wright, is one of the original co-founders of Tesla Motors. The electric Tesla Model S recently received a near-perfect score from Consumer Reports (the highest they’ve ever awarded), and its first quarter 2012 sales topped the large luxury sedan market—if Wright can achieve similar success with his truck retrofits, we might all breathe a little easier.
There are about two million of these workhorse trucks on American roads today, delivering packages, hauling waste, or helping move furniture. They consume more than ten times as much fuel, annually, as the average car, and most of them run on diesel, spewing out toxic soot from their tailpipes. When these trucks rumble through congested urban streets, where there’s lots of foot traffic, and kids playing right at tailpipe level, they’re a clear health hazard. Diesel pollution can cause asthma, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and other illnesses. Nearly 37 million kids in this country live in areas where the air is unhealthy due to smog and soot pollution from diesel and other fossil fuels. Diesel pollution is also a major source of black carbon, which was recently determined to be the second largest global warming pollutant.
Wrightspeed’s technology essentially converts a groaning, squealing, gas-guzzling truck into a cleaner, quieter, long-range, plug-in hybrid vehicle. The retrofit powertrain uses batteries to drive electric motors coupled to the wheels—more efficient than using a gas engine to power the wheels. The batteries have a range of about 40 miles, and can be charged from the grid, just as in a plug-in electric vehicle, such as a Chevy Volt. Unlike a full EV, however, the batteries are recharged by an on-board generator, a microturbine that runs on gasoline, or diesel, or CNG. This makes the truck’s range effectively unlimited, since it can be refueled at a regular gas station. It’s kind of the best of both worlds, with the additional advantage of being a retrofit—it doesn’t require the purchase of an entirely new vehicle.