A Guest Post by Islandboy
Over ten years ago on April 9, 2009 the original article “Electric Commercial Vehicles” was posted at The Oil Drum web site. In Part 1 of this ten year update we reviewed the progress or lack thereof, of all the projects mentioned in the 2009 article, concluding that while some had failed, there are some that have survived and are still supplying solutions today. In Part 2 we examined the policies being implemented in China to accelerate the development of an EV manufacturing sector. We also looked at some projects that have come about since the 2009 article, with the aim of the transitioning of commercial vehicles to options that reduce or eliminate the direct dependence on Fossil Fuels.
In this post, we will look at some solutions that were overlooked in the 2009 article but, have been in use for decades, in some cases, primarily the case of trolleybuses and trams or streetcars as they are known in North America, over a hundred years. It should also be noted that all underground rail systems are electric, as are all high speed rail networks and many light rail and commuter rail networks but, these articles will be restricted to road going commercial vehicles as electrified rail has been addressed extensively by Alan S. Drake who went by the screen name AlanfromBigEasy at theoildrum.com
Trams or as they are known in North America, streetcars predated the widespread use of internal combustion engines when they were introduced in the first half of the 19th century. Early tram systems used horses to pull the rail cars and later some used steam engines but, by the end of the 19th century electric trams, supplied with power from overhead lines had become the most common form of tram system and were being introduced all over the world. A small number of systems used other sources, including the cable cars of San Francisco, which were pulled by a cable running in the street under the carriages.
By the middle of the 20th century streetcar systems in hundreds of US cities and towns were dismantled, being replaced by bus systems. In Europe there was some closure of tram systems but, it was not as widespread as in the US and considerably more tram systems remained in service. There has been somewhat of a renaissance in the world of trams and light rail systems with systems that had been shut down for decades being revived or new systems emerging in locations that previously had none. In the central or downtown areas of some cities light rail operates very much like trams, operating at street level and sometimes even sharing rights of way with regular traffic. It is more common for light rail to have dedicated access to it’s own lanes, a feature shared by some tram systems as well. More reading on trams/streetcars can be found at the following URLs.
In the process of seeking information on trolleytrucks, I came across information concerning the use of cargo trams. The link below is a web page with interesting information on a handful of tramway networks that also carry freight in Europe. From that page:
”The best known in the English speaking world is the ‘CarGoTram‘ of Dresden, Germany.
The CarGoTram commenced operation in 2001, transporting car parts 4km to Volkswagen’s “Transparent Factory” located in central Dresden, from a road served logistics centre. Each bidirectional trams is made up of five units, with services operating along the same tracks used by passenger services.
For further reading on the system in Dresden, click on the following link:
The following link chronicles an attempt to set up a freight tram system in Amsterdam in the Netherlands. According to the article the system went bankrupt partially as a result of the government declining to make a relatively small investment in the additional tracks that would have been required for successful operation of the system. It should be noted that regular freight operations are not required to pay the full cost the roads they run on and thus, are effectively subsidized. This could be considered an instance where fossil fuel based transportation is provided with de-facto subsidies while zero em missions solutions do not get similar treatment.
Trolleybus in Arnhem the Netherlands, image courtesey of By Alfenaar – Alfenaar, on Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26998086
I first became aware that modern trolleybus systems existed in the summer of 2009, on a visit to Europe. I was at a train station in Arnhem in the Netherlands, transferring from a local train to the ICE high speed train heading into Germany and decided to take a walk outside the train station. This is where I saw a trolleybus pass by and head inside a nearby bus station. That was the first time I had seen a trolleybus and I have since seen them in San Francisco and Seattle. As someone who is generally interested in this sort of technology it seems rather fortuitous that my stop was in Arnhem, the only city in the Netherlands with a trolleybus system still operating. See:
Trolleybusses, like typical trams, use overhead wires to supply electricity to drive the motors but, use wheels fitted with rubber tyres instead of steel wheels on rails. Some trolleybuses have an on board generator, allowing them to run for short distances in areas lacking overhead wire service and others use small battery packs to provide this ability
In the US there are five trolleybus systems still in operation out of as much as 65 that have existed in the U.S. at one time or another. They are:
San Francisco, California
More reading on trolleybus systems in the US can be found at the following links:
Worldwide more than 500 trolleybus systems have been in serviced at on time or another but of that number only around 300 were in operation as of 2012. See:
There is an interesting article on trolleybuses at the following URL:
A trolleytruck (also known as a freight trolley or trolley truck) is a trolleybus-like vehicle used for carrying cargo instead of passengers. A trolleytruck is usually a type of electric truck powered by two overhead wires, from which it draws electricity using two trolley poles or two pantographs. Two current collectors are required in order to supply and return current, because the return current cannot pass to the ground (as is done by streetcars on rails) since trolleytrucks use tires that are insulators. Lower powered trucks, such as might be seen on the streets of a city, tend to use trolley poles for current collection. Higher powered trucks, such as those used for large construction or mining projects, may exceed the power capacity of trolley poles and have to use pantographs instead. Trolleytrucks have been used in various places around the world and are still in use in cities in Russia and Ukraine, as well as at mines in North America and Africa. Because they draw power from the mains, trolleytrucks can use renewable energy sources – modern trolleytrucks systems are under test in Sweden and Germany along highways using diesel–electric hybrids to reduce emissions.
For more on the modern trolleytruck systems being tested see
There is a very informative web page on trolleytrucks, trolleybuses and cargotrams at the following URL. It is hosted on a solar powered server in Barcelona, Spain so, the page may not be available at all times.
Mine Hauling trucks
Many of the largest mining haul trucks, capable of hauling over 300 tons of material, are actually diesel electric hybrids, foregoing mechanical transmissions for electric motors powered by an on-board diesel generator. In some instances these large trucks have been fiited with pantographs in order to draw power from overhead wires, a feature known as trolley assist. A comprehensive overview of the history of trolly assist in mining can be found at the following URL:
other mining equipment
A web page titled Underground Mining Transportation & Haulage Systems, contains the following paragraph that suggests that electric machines have been widely used in underground mining for some time.
Locomotives for underground use are powered by electric, compressed-air, or, rarely, gasoline motors. Diesel locomotives have been used extensively in Europe, but have not been adopted in the United States. Studies are now in progress on how to adapt American Diesel locomotives to underground use and to determine conditions under which they may be employed with safety. Gasoline motors should never be employed for underground work because of the hazard from exhaust fumes.
One manufacturer that builds electric trucks for underground mining is the Kiruna Truck Company. From the web site of the Engineering & Mining Journal
Those who see hybrid and full electric drive systems for mine haulage as the way forward may be encouraged by new orders received by GIA Industri for the two models in the Kiruna Electric Truck range. Six trucks are to be delivered during 2009 to customers in North America. And, orders for electric-powered LHDs are also increasing, according to Sandvik.
The Kiruna Electric Truck system is the result of joint venture initiated in 1981 by the Swedish companies LKAB, Kiruna Truck and ASEA (now ABB) to develop an inclined ore haulage system primarily for underground mining. The system could be installed either in a new mine instead of shaft hoisting or in an existing mine with shaft hoisting to haul ore up a ramp to the shaft skip-loading station from new mining areas below the base of the hoisting shaft. The first model was the 50-mt-payload K1050E and the first sale was in 1988 to Zinkgruvan. By 1995, when Kiruna Truck and ABB introduced the K635E, 16 trucks were in operation at mines in Sweden (Zinkgruvan), Canada (Hope Brook, Kidd Creek) and Australia (Mount Isa). The new 35-mt-payload K635E was launched at the Zinkgruvan mine in Sweden and currently two more K1050E vehicles are being built at Kiruna Truck for Inco’s McCreedy East project.
Another manufacturer that deals with electrically powered equipment for underground mining is Damascus Corporation:
Damascus Corporation, formerly known as the Damascus Pneumatics Corporation, was founded in Damascus, Virginia in 1980. At that time, the company produced pneumatically operated rock dusting equipment and hydraulic drills for the underground coal mining industry. The business enjoyed a steady growth and became known for its quality products in the region comprising Southwest Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania.
A response to other needs of the industry resulted in the creation of small, battery-operated personnel carriers in 1984. These 3-wheel, 2-man vehicles, designed to utilize golf cart components in their assembly, were found to be economical, durable and extremely functional by mine operators. They became very popular as runabouts, moving personnel, tools and parts underground in coal seams as low as 29 inches.
The success of this versatile little vehicle brought an awareness of the need for a slightly larger, mid-sized carrier. As a result, the MAC-8 transporter was designed and introduced in 1987 as an eight-to-ten-man personnel carrier. These battery-powered vehicles quickly earned a reputation for rugged dependability, and custom designs offered higher carrying capacities of people and materials, overhead protection, configurations for various coal seam heights and other specialized options.
By 1989, the company was advancing quickly, and completely redesigning the smaller vehicles, building them from new componentry with greater capabilities, more efficiency and increased durability. The battery-powered Lil’MAC was introduced in 3- or 4- wheel versions
There is growing interest in the use of electric power mining industry, with a view to reducing dependence on fossil fuels and their attendant emissions and reducing costs as the following article indicates:
Goldcorp has designed Borden Lake to become the world’s first all-electric underground mine when it reaches commercial production next year, an undertaking the company expects to not only help minimise community and environmental impact but also improve health and safety for employees – all while boosting Goldcorp’s bottom line.
By the time Borden is in full production, there will be no diesel-powered equipment underground. A combination of tethered electric and quick-charge battery-powered equipment will comprise the entire fleet. By eliminating diesel underground and fully electrifying Borden, Goldcorp anticipates a 70% reduction in greenhouse gases and annual savings of 2 million litres of diesel fuel and 1 million litres of propane. The company also expects to save 35,000 megawatt hours of electricity yearly, due in large part to drastically reduced ventilation needs.
Goldcorp senior project engineer Maarten van Koppen: “Electrification is the ultimate win-win, especially complemented by innovations like ventilation on demand and full connectivity. The main benefits that we see with going electric are certainly the elimination of fuel, reduced maintenance, reduced greenhouse gases, reduced power consumption, and of course the biggest one is the elimination of diesel particulate matter in underground environments, which is hugely beneficial to the health of the workforce. We were able to eliminate a return air raise and our intake raise, we could reduce the diameter from five metres to four metres, so there’s big cost savings to be had if you set it up right from the get-go.”
Golf Carts and Utility Vehicles
Whether golf carts can be considered commercial vehicles, depends on whether one considers golf to be recreation or a business. At any rate, according to the web page linked to below:
One of the things that make it difficult to identify the first golf cart is that none of the first electric carts were initially meant to be golf carts. They were a “modern” convenience used for handicapped conveyances, and someone would one day say, “Hey, let’s put our golf bags on the back and use it on the golf course!”.
While some golf carts have obviously been developed exclusively for use on golf courses, There are others that have been developed with multiple purposes in mind and come complete with headlights, brake lights, turn signals, seat belts, high-speed motors, mirrors and any other features required to make them street legal in the jurisdiction in which they are to be used. For this class of vehicle, “street legal” relates to low speed operation on urban or suburban streets or on private campuses as they are restricted to a maximum speed of 25 mph and are only allowed on streets with a speed limit of 35 mph or less.
The following URL points to the “history” page of one particular brand of golf carts and low speed vehicles, Club Car:
Over the years a wide variety of small vehicles have been developed to move goods, people or equipment in various settings including sporting arenas (stadiums), hospitals, educational institutions, factories, shopping centers, airports, resorts, farms, military facilities and government facilities. While some of these vehicles are powered by natural gas, LPG, gasoline or diesel, many of them are electric, especially when they have to be used in enclosed spaces, like inside buildings where issues of inadequate range do not arise while quiet operation and/or absence of potentially dangerous exhaust fumes provide electrically driven vehicles with a distinct advantage.
There are a couple of Italian manufacturers that supply very small electric commercial vehicles. Alke, a twenty five year old outfit focuses exclusively on electric work trucks while Piaggio, a member of a group of companies that includes several motorcycle brands, including Vespa and Moto Guzzi, has offered an electric version of it’s Porter electric micro-van since at least late 2008.
In the UK South East Electric Vehicle Services, SEEVS sells and services a wide range of electric vehicles, including the Cushman brand (Titan load carrier pictured below) that produced three wheeled “meter maid” vehicles used by parking meter attendants in several major cities
The US based Polaris Industries is a well known manufacturer of All Terrain Vehicles (ATVs) and snowmobiles that introduced an electric version of their Breeze Neighborhood Electric Vehicle (NEV) in 2009, followed by an electric version of their Ranger ATV in 2010. Following those introductions Polaris acquired at least four electric utility vehicle manufacturers, including the four pictured below
The milk float, used in the UK for over a century is one class of electric vehicle that has persevered over the years after almost disappearing when EU Common Market rules insisted that supermarkets be allowed to undercut milkmen and huge supermarket chains started selling fresh milk packaged in plastic bottles to reduce costs. Back in 1975, 94% UK milk was delivered in glass bottles, but by 2016 that had decreased to just 3%. Milk deliveries were also popular outside the UK, in several European countries and even in North America but, in North America horse drawn wagons were eventually replaced by trucks powered by internal combustion engines. According to a page at the web site of North American dairy packaging company Stanpac, ”In the early 1950s, reliable power refrigeration replaced iceboxes and milk delivery service went into decline”.
The first milk floats in the UK were horse drawn carriages but, back in 1889 according to this account, The London Milk Float…A Bottled History, a Mr Crowter made the first trip in a battery-powered vehicle. Looking at a list of UK milk float manufacturers at this Wikipedia page suggest that milk float manufacturing became an established business in the UK in late 1920s to early 1930s. According to this account, titled They don’t make milk floats the way they used to, ”In the 1970s, the UK industry was making 1,200 floats a year”.
In a somewhat surprising twist, fresh milk delivered to homes in glass bottles is making something of a comeback. In North America the motivations are somewhat different than in the UK but, the end result is a renewed interest in having fresh milk delivered, usually from a local dairy to the home. See the following news articles for more reading:
The Milkman’s Comeback Means Dairy At The Door And More
Remember the Milkman? In Some Places, He’s Back
Why glass milk bottle deliveries are back
Glass milk bottles make a comeback
Best in glass – can the return of the milkround help squash our plastic problem?
The white stuff: why the milk float is making a return
Cardiff Dad renovates 45-year-old milk float due to demand
Ethical hipsters are driving return of electric milk floats (subscription required)
The milkman is making a comeback as milk drinkers ditch plastic for vintage glass bottles
Milk firm’s multi-million pound investment in eco-vans
The picture above is one of the latest in the new electric milk floats. It is actually a StreetScooter covered in part 2 of this series. There are no manufacturers of electric milk floats still in business in the UK. The web pages linked to below contain some interesting anecdotes about the milk delivery trade and lots of pictures. The first one was published before the resurgence in interest in home milk delivery and contains a video featuring the oldest known milkman in the world.
The history of the forklift truck dates back to it’s early predecessors, the four wheeled baggage cart used in railway stations in the nineteenth century and the two wheel hand truck still in use today. According to this History of the Forklift
”Back in the last century, every railway station of any size had its hand-operated four-wheel baggage wagon. While these conveyances had to be loaded by hand, they could carry a much heavier load than the two-wheel truck. In 1906, an official of the Pennsylvania Railroad at Altoona, Pa., added storage battery power to a baggage wagon, producing what was probably the first powered platform truck. The controls were placed so that the operator had to walk out in front. So popular was the idea of powered trucks that their use rapidly extended to other lines of industry, but there was no thought of mounting elevating equipment until much later when the success for the portable elevator created the demand.”
According to the same web page the first portable load elevating machine predated the first electrically powered baggage wagon by almost forty years having been built from wood in 1867. The predecessors to the modern forklift produced at the beginning of the twentieth century were powered by battery driven electric motors, since the internal combustion engine was relatively new, noisy, crude and probably unreliable at the time. There may also have been issues with a lack of widespread availability of fuel since the early internal combustion engine powered cars were just becoming popular.
The picture below is from the web page, The history of the forklift truck
The website of the forklift manufacturer that, was then known as the CLARK Equipment Company, has a pictorial history page that claims the world’s first internal combustion-powered industrial truck was built by the company in 1917 and that the first internal combustion fork lift truck was their a Duat tow tractor with an optional tiering attachment, introduced in 1924. Internal combustion engines remained the mainstay of Clarke’s products until 1942 when their first battery powered models were introduced.
According to this Wikipedia entry:
Continuing development and expanded use of the forklift continued through the 1920s and 1930s. The introduction of hydraulic power and the development of the first electric power forklifts, along with the use of standardized pallets in the late 1930s, helped to increase the popularity of forklift trucks
A web page outlining the History of Forklift Batteries states:
The Clark Tructractor, an invention for their axel plant in 1917 caught on and in 1920 Yale and Townelow released the lift platform truck and just three years later the electric truck (rising forks/elevated mast). With the development and drive for battery driven motive power, Crown Battery opened in Fremont Ohio in 1927.
Another page outlining the history of the forklift truck can be found at the following link:
Electric forklifts have remained in use through the years, occupying niche markets such as indoor facilities where the emission of harmful fumes from internal combustion engines would pose a problem. Heavy lead acid batteries actually provide a dual role in electric forklifts, actually forming part of the required counterweight in addition to providing power. As a result forklift batteries are usually quite large and very heavy.
As is the case with other classes of commercial vehicles, electric propulsion is seeing increased interest, promising reduced operating and maintenance cost in addition to lower emissions. In 2017, one manufacturer introduced an electric forklift, pictured below, capable of lifting up to 18 tons, claiming that, “the operating cost of the new 9-18 ton range is much lower than that of comparable diesel machines and the payback time can be as short as two years.”
There is a vast array of electrically powered commercial vehicles in use around the world covering a wide swath of applications. So much so that, many people might see them on a regular basis and not fully appreciate that they are observing low emissions technology at work. While in some cases they may be vastly outnumbered by their fossil fuel powered counterparts, their mere existence proves that many of the tasks we now depend on fossil fuel to carry out, can also be done by electrically powered vehicles. Whether there will be enough time to implement these solutions at the scale required depends on whether the peak in world oil production is imminent or several years away. If cutting global warming emissions is the main objective, then electrically powered solutions should be implemented as soon as possible.
In Part 4 we will be looking at new vehicles that are either undergoing customer trials, have become available in the last few months or are scheduled for availability in the next few months. These are typically vehicles that have been seen on public roads in normal use or will be seen on the roads very shortly.