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It’s starting with a single vehicle, but a major distributor of packaging products for business is among those leading the charge for electric trucks.
Formed in 2014 from the merger of Unisource Worldwide Inc. and Xpedx, Veritiv Corp. promises “packaging solutions from concept to delivery.” It operates 125 distribution centers throughout the U.S., Canada and Mexico, supported by a private fleet of around 800 owned and leased power units.
Those trucks are all powered by internal combustion engines, but Veritiv is keen to change that. With its units restricted to day runs within a 300-mile travel radius, the company’s fleet is a “really good” candidate for electrification, says Will Vining, director of transportation optimization. “We’ve got significant goals around sustainability,” he adds. “We’re looking to increase our miles per gallon and decrease our carbon footprint.”
Vertiv didn’t move earlier in the direction of electric trucks because the right models weren’t commercially available, Vining says. Even today, the market is anything but flooded with the technology, especially in the Class 8 category — those big 18 wheelers with gross vehicle weight rating in excess of 33,000 pounds.
Veritiv’s choice of a provider was a natural one, though, given its lengthy experience with Penske Truck Leasing. “They came to us with the opportunity,” Vining recalls. “We’ve got an extremely strong partnership and have worked with them for many years.”
Penske was looking for the perfect customer with which to test its fledgling fleet of electric trucks, says Paul Rosa, senior vice president of procurement and fleet planning. It saw Veritiv as an ideal candidate, given the limited range of the distributor’s fleet, and proximity to Penske charging facilities.
Penske started talking about electric power for its trucks back in 2010, but it wasn’t until 2017 that the company began devoting extensive resources to Rosa’s team. The company reached out to the small number of manufacturers that were gearing up to produce the vehicles. It selected Daimler Trucks North America LLC as its “co-creation partner,” taking 20 of the first 30 units that the manufacturer built.
Getting the trucks ready for service was just the first step. For the pilot phase, Penske had to find a shipper with the right combination of product, range and service area. “The big thing for us was proving out the model,” says Rosa.
That’s where Veritiv came in. It had operations in Southern California, close to Penske’s charging stations. Initially, Rosa says, there were concerns that an electric truck lacked the power to haul Veritiv’s loads of paper. “They were on the heavier side,” he notes. But the challenge would end up serving as proof of just what an electric rig was capable of handling.
The test in partnership with Veritiv began on April 1 of this year, with a single vehicle. Penske needed to know whether the unit’s battery could hold out during a full day of service. The amount of charge time depends on the needs of a given route, and can range from a couple of hours to 10 hours at the slowest. A full charge isn’t always required, and consideration must be given to the cost of electricity, which varies according to time of day.
A further concern might be whether electricity is reliably available in areas like Southern California, which experiences heavy demand on its power grid during the summer months. “That’s something that every state and municipality is going to have to figure out,” Rosa says. “It’s certainly a complicated question as electrification continues to proliferate.” But Penske had already gone through two summer cycles while testing its first electric trucks in the area, so it wasn’t especially worried about that potential glitch.
One wrinkle that few anticipated was the initial concern by drivers about how quiet the vehicles were. “Paul warned me that this was going to happen,” says Vining. “Early on, drivers were calling and complaining about a funny sound — but it was just the sound of the outside road, which they weren’t used to hearing.”
Veritiv doesn’t intend to stop its electrification program with one unit, but the timetable for expanded use of electric trucks depends in part on how quickly they become commercially available, and at what price. “We need the cost to come down, and for OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] to start making more of them,” Vining says. “For us, we’ve got to determine which locations we want to put them in, and if we do, we would go all in that location.” And that means investing in supporting infrastructure, including additional charging stations.
However Veritiv decides to go forward with adoption of electric trucks, Penske will be a likely partner in the effort. “There’s a deep trust between the Veritiv team and Penske team,” says Vining. “They know our business well, and are an industry leader in the trucking world. When they come to us with an opportunity like this, I trust that it’s going to be something that we want to take a look at.”
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