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It's Not Just Cars, Delivery Trucks Are Going Electric Too

NOEL KING, HOST:

The trucks that deliver packages to your house, your apartment or your office might soon be running on batteries. Companies like FedEx and Amazon are going electric. Here's NPR's Camila Domonoske.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: It's a familiar sight and sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF GASOLINE ENGINE STARTING)

DOMONOSKE: The vans and trucks loaded up with boxes dropping off our Amazon orders and meal kits and mail-order wine.

(SOUNDBITE OF GASOLINE ENGINE RUNNING)

DOMONOSKE: But in the years to come, those deliveries might sound a little different.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELECTRIC MOTOR RUNNING)

DOMONOSKE: That's the sound - or lack thereof - of a battery-powered FedEx delivery. Electric vehicles are famously very quiet. Right now, vehicles like these are a small fraction of FedEx's fleet.

MITCH JACKSON: But I think we've just now started to reach the inflection point for scalability.

DOMONOSKE: Mitch Jackson is the head of sustainability at FedEx. And when he talks about scalability, he means scaling all the way up. FedEx recently pledged to replace its entire pickup and delivery fleet with electric vehicles. These are the trucks and vans that drop off packages at doors, not the long-haul trucks. It's easier for these vehicles to go electric. They travel shorter distances from a warehouse to your home rather than across the country. As for charging...

JACKSON: If you think about it, our vehicles operate throughout the day, picking up and delivering our customers' goods. And in the evening, they come back to our stations, and they'll be parked there overnight.

DOMONOSKE: Plenty of charging time. Jackson says going electric will fight climate change and also serve the bottom line. Electric vehicles still cost a lot up front, but they save on fuel. And the motors are much simpler, which means fewer things to break, which means lower maintenance costs.

JACKSON: That experience that we've had over the last decade with respect to electric vehicles - not only did they have high operational efficiency and performance, but they were also cheaper to operate, as well.

DOMONOSKE: It's not just FedEx coming to this conclusion. UPS ordered 10,000 electric delivery vehicles. Amazon is buying 100,000. DHL says nearly a fifth of its fleet is zero emissions already. The U.S. Postal Service is starting with 10% of its fleet. And some lawmakers want to see it shift faster. All this demand has caught automakers' attention. A few months ago, General Motors had a keynote speech at CES, the tech conference that's usually focused on whiz-bang innovations like flying cars and robots. But GM Vice President Pam Fletcher stood in front of a much less glamorous delivery truck.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAM FLETCHER: Moving goods more efficiently to help reduce congestion and lower emissions, helping electrify an industry.

DOMONOSKE: It may not be a whiz-bang gadget, but GM is seeing dollar signs. CEO Mary Barra told investors that electric commercial vehicles could be a $60 billion market in a decade. This focus on electrifying commercial vehicles - it's a big shift. Jane Lane is a professor at the University of Chicago. She says most efforts to cut carbon from transportation have focused on passenger cars. But you can have a bigger impact for each individual truck that goes electric.

JANE LIN: Trucks are much dirtier vehicles, much less efficient.

DOMONOSKE: And Lin says now is the time to tackle those emissions because, otherwise, gas and diesel delivery trucks will just contribute more and more to climate change.

LIN: Everybody has gone online to do online shopping. And I don't think that's going to go away after the pandemic. And so what that means is now you're going to see a lot more of these delivery vehicles, you know, roaming around in the city.

DOMONOSKE: But maybe a decade from now, more of those vehicles you see will be electric. Camila Domonoske, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MENISCUS'S "DATURAS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.