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Staples Fleet Tests Diesel-Electric Viability

March 2010, by Chad Simon

Staples' 2,200-unit fleet includes Isuzu N-Series and FTR, International 4300 and Freightliner M2 Class 5, 6 and 7 medium-duty trucks.

Framingham, Mass.-based Staples recently concluded a fleetwide hybrid-diesel pilot program in Los Angeles, which was designed to test the electric launch capability of a torque-assistance (bolt-on) hybrid technology, identify its viability and determine whether it could work with the fleet's current Isuzu diesel powertrains, according to Mike Payette, fleet equipment manager for Staples.

Payette oversees a fleet of 2,200 vehicles comprised of Isuzu N-Series and FTR, International 4300 and Freightliner M2 Class 5, 6, and 7 medium-duty trucks. The fleet is wrapping up another hybrid pilot program in Boston.

Turning to Isuzu

When deciding which selector to use, Payette turned to Isuzu, telling company officials he wanted to reduce his $40,000-$50,000 daily fuel spend. 

"Anything I can do to save a nickel per truck per day comes out to a lot of money at the end of the year," Payette said. "From our drivers' standpoint, Isuzu has made very few changes in its cab design over the years, so whether we operate a 1994, 1998, or 2004 model, the cabs are essentially the same, the trucks operate in the same way, and all the buttons are in the same place. It's easy from a fleet standpoint to move the vehicle around from driver to driver."

According to Payette, Isuzu customers in the U.S. who want a hybrid application must install an aftermarket bolt-on hybrid drive system. However, this also allows fleet customers to spec how many trucks to hybridize or remain conventional diesel, depending on driver route structures.

Searching for an Answer

Staples' fleet completes 48-52 stop-and-go deliveries per truck per day, an operation well suited to electric- or hybrid-drive technology. However, following the Los Angeles pilot program, Payette and his team concluded the simple bolt-on aftermarket hybrid system used in the test wasn't the way to go.

Instead, Payette believes the system must be offered by OEMs as part of an entire powertrain package. A true electric-launch system that can handle the peak horsepower and torque needs of the launch should be paired to a much smaller internal combustion engine that gets more than 25-30 mpg just to maintain the vehicle's speed.

"For instance, if an Isuzu truck runs a 5.4L four-cylinder diesel with a bolt-on hybrid system used to electrically launch the vehicle, once that vehicle gets up to speed, it still has a 210-hp, 5.4L diesel when all that is needed is about 130 horses to maintain the truck's speed," Payette said.

According to Payette, Isuzu acknowledges a 210-hp engine  is not needed with the proper hybrid system bolted between the engine and transmission. However, the manufacturer currently does not offer a smaller diesel engine certified to meet U.S. emissions standards.

Developing Niche Vehicles

The hybrid pilot program is part of a larger greening effort by Staples as a responsible environmental corporate citizen. However, not every truck in Payette's fleet will benefit from a hybrid system, just as every truck wouldn't benefit from a 100-percent electric system.

"A vehicle that serves all purposes just can't be produced anymore. Instead, niche vehicles, such as those that only operate in the inner city, have the benefit of technology available today to maximize the CO2 and fuel reductions," Payette said. "There's no one vehicle that can handle all my needs yet. I can't get enough range out of the all-electric vehicles, and the diesel-electric or gasoline-electric hybrids are a good inter-step, but again, they wouldn't work on a high-mileage route because I'm not going to get the benefit of the electric launch."

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