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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.

With help from a grant awarded by the California Energy Commission (CEC), which helps provide critical government support for promising clean technologies, as well as private capital, Wrightspeed was able to manufacture prototypes and test them on the Isuzu NPR, a popular model in the medium-duty truck fleet. Under testing conditions, the normal truck averaged about 12 miles per gallon. With the hybrid drivetrain, the truck earned about 44 miles per gallon. Wrightspeed calculated that on a diesel-powered garbage truck, emissions of smog-forming pollutants such as NOx and small particles would be reduced 85 to 95 percent—and that’s based on a conservative estimate of the truck’s baseline pollution levels. (Garbage trucks, as you can imagine, rarely cruise smoothly down city streets, and their emissions jump with every grinding stop and roaring start.)

The company won another CEC grant to help accelerate manufacturing of its hybrid drivetrain. The prototype is already in trials with potential customers, and the market potential is strong. Trucks last a long time, but drivetrains do not, and fleet owners are used to replacing their vehicle’s drivetrains every few years. A retrofit is a much easier sell than a new hybrid vehicle. Plus, because of the fuel savings, a retrofit pays for itself in just about five years.

The trucks that Wrightspeed is targeting comprise about 20 percent of the U.S. truck fleet. If this retrofit is adopted widely—and with its attractive payback time, it just might—we’re looking at taking out a significant chunk of air pollution from our cities.

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Images courtesy of Wrightspeed.

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