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With Electric Cars A Relative Success, Electric Trucks A Likely Next Step


Despite all the promise and publicity, electric cars still make up less than one percent of all U.S. car sales. But that's enough to motivate some entrepreneurs to work on the next challenge - electric trucks. For member station WFAE in Charlotte, North Carolina, Ben Bradford reports on one such startup with 13 employees and very high hopes.

BEN BRADFORD: In a mostly empty warehouse in Charlotte, a few mechanics tighten bolts and glue insulation to an electric pickup. Brooks Agnew engineered it.

BROOKS AGNEW: This is the first full design from the ground up electric truck.

B. BRADFORD: Other companies have converted conventional gas trucks to electric, but the heavier frames cut down on their range. EV Fleet's Condor has a gleaming blue fiberglass body to keep it light and no grill to cut down on drag, Agnew says.

AGNEW: And it is very quick - I mean, really, quick, like sportscar quick. And it's able to go over 100 miles on a charge and carry weight.

B. BRADFORD: Agnew is EV Fleet's Doc Brown, the brilliant or possibly mad visionary following his dream. Agnew began designing an electric vehicle seven years ago after decades in the automotive industry.

AGNEW: I think it's the real spirit of America, this whole independent EV industry.

B. BRADFORD: Thus far, he says, he spent over $5 million of his own and other investors' money. Agnew's counterpoint, the realist, is company president Adam Cook.

ADAM COOK: It's kind of insane go into this business because you're really competing with such Goliaths.

B. BRADFORD: Conventional pickups, like the Ford F-150 and Chevy Silverado, dominate the U.S. market. But no major automaker is producing a purely electric pickup. Agnew and Cook want to fill that void. They're betting on fleet owners, companies and government agencies that buy in bulk. They might be willing to take a risk on a $50,000 electric vehicle in hopes of saving on fuel costs over the long term. EV Fleet showed off the Condor this month to fleet managers like Chris Facente. He manages about 400 vehicles at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.

CHRIS FACENTE: As far as I can tell, the truck looks pretty solid. And that's why we're looking into it.

B. BRADFORD: But he's still hesitant. If he invests in the Condor and then the small company goes out of business, it could be difficult to get replacement parts. This is the major problem electric vehicles face, says Travis Bradford - no relation. He's the director of Columbia University's Energy and Environment program.

TRAVIS BRADFORD: The problems is that there's still a tremendous amount of technology and operational risk from a fleet owner to adopt these types of vehicles. They are willing to test them in many instances, but they're certainly not willing to make the kinds of capital investments necessary to roll out large fleets.

B. BRADFORD: Another problem - gas prices have fallen to an almost four-year low. That usually coincides with lower sales for electric vehicles. But Bradford thinks companies eventually will take the leap. Corporations like Staples and FedEx have already converted some delivery trucks to electric. EV Fleets' Adam Cook admits the challenge is daunting.

COOK: I've thought of, you know, others that have succeeded in the face of adversity, and I just remind myself, you know, you just have to keep going. We have something to offer, and I have to remember that we just need to keep going.

B. BRADFORD: Their plan is to build four trucks over the next couple of months. If orders build up, they can scale up to 30 a month with current staff. They may want to hurry. Electric car innovator Tesla Motors has begun hinting at developing its own electric pickup. For NPR News, I'm Ben Bradford in Charlotte. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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