CHICAGO — Beneath the glam of this city's Magnificent Mile shopping district and its towering downtown buildings is an underground network of delivery streets and docks. In these darkened recesses where the wind doesn't blow, the skyscrapers belch hot air, and delivery trucks spew exhaust — except for one truck, a step van delivering hot dog and hamburger buns.
It idles noiselessly enough for passersby to mistake it as having its engine off, even with LED lights bathing the cabin.
The driver, Sean Sullivan, a 34-year veteran with Alpha Baking Co. in Chicago, shuts the gate in back, stomps up the aisle, and takes his seat. He shifts the lever on the instrument panel, and the truck begins moving. There's no sound other than the stacked crates jostling with the suspension on Chicago's rocky roads. No engine heat radiates from the fire wall; there's no sweetly metallic taste of diesel in the air.
"The difference in driving the electric truck is, it helps with concentration, the ability to hear ambulances and fire trucks more," said Sullivan, 55. "Makes a big difference. If you're sitting right on top of the diesel engine, you get nothing but that diesel engine. And the exhaust."
Sullivan considers himself one of the lucky few who get to drive the five electric medium-grade trucks. Alpha's fleet also includes 52 other diesel trucks.
"We want to lessen our footprint as a company," said Paul Nosalik, logistics manager of Alpha. "It's the right thing to do. We're not as dependent on foreign oil, not polluting, and we feel comfortable delivering to schools and nursing homes in the early morning."
The only sound, aside from the squeak and clank of the suspension, is the backup alert. Most deliveries to residential areas shouldn't be made until after 7 a.m., Sullivan said, but the silent electric truck enables earlier deliveries. Sullivan gets to Alpha's delivery center at 2:30 a.m. and heads out at 4:30 a.m. to make 30 to 40 stops.
"I think it's amazing," said Joseph De Vito, an Alpha customer on Sullivan's route who owns Busy Burger in a residential part of the Little Italy neighborhood. "I don't see why every [delivery truck] isn't electric."
More step vans and medium-grade trucks are going mainstream, thanks to Ohio-based Workhorse, maker of electric step vans, pickup trucks, and other delivery vehicles, including an electric helicopter prototype.
"We focus on helping people deliver things," said Steve Burns, CEO of Workhorse.
The publicly traded company sold two step vans to UPS, which then ordered 18 more, then 125, then an additional 200 last year.
The step van is technically a plug-in hybrid vehicle with a 60 kWh battery pack, giving it a 60-mile range that can be doubled with the backup 2-cylinder gas generator, same as the BMW i3 electric car.
When the delivery route is done, between 10 a.m. and noon, Sullivan plugs it into a Level 2 (240-volt) charger, and the truck has full power after six to eight hours of charging. Total output for the vehicle, capable of hauling 19,500 total pounds, is 268 horsepower.
Tesla is in the early stages of developing an all-electric pickup truck and a full-fledged semi.
Ryder, one of the nation's largest medium-duty truck fleet management companies, agreed to an exclusive partnership with Chanje, maker of medium-grade all-electric trucks, the Los Angeles Times reported in August. Ryder customers can rent the electric trucks starting in California and expanding from there in 2018.
The use of electrified power trains in delivery trucks is expected to grow globally to 332,000 by 2026 from 31,000 vehicles in 2016, according to a study by Navigant Research.
One big barrier of going electric is the steep initial cost.
The Workhorse plug-in step van costs about $30,000 more than a $60,000 diesel step van, Nosalik estimated. Alpha only considered it with a grant from the Chicago Area Clean Cities Coalition, a nonprofit consortium launched under the U.S. Department of Energy's Clean Cities initiative to reduce petroleum in the transportation sector.
"Originally we didn't know much about electric trucks," Nosalik said, adding that Alpha was already using alternative fuels, from 27 propane trucks to tractors powered by compressed natural gas. "We will continue with [Workhorse] without the grant money."
It recently announced the purchase of five additional Workhorse step vans to replace five old diesels.
It's simple economics for Alpha. After the initial outlay, the Workhorse step vans have a running cost of four cents a mile. The same diesel truck costs 35 cents a mile, Nosalik said.
"We focus on fleets because of the lower total cost of operations," Burns said of Workhorse's model. "Being green is just a nice by-product."
Another nice by-product is driver satisfaction.
Sullivan, who has to take the Illinois Department of Transportation physical every year because of hearing loss, suspects his condition is due to over three decades of driving diesels.
During his deliveries, he talks in a normal voice, above the squeaking suspension and jostling crates. He pulls into a place, is out of the truck for three to five minutes, which would be idling diesel fuel otherwise, and is on to the next stop. Stop-and-go driving is best served by electric vehicles.
There are limitations to the truck. There's no air-conditioning because the frequency of deliveries, sometimes within the same block, means nothing would stay cold anyway. Highway speed is limited to 67 mph for efficiency. When the battery dips below a 50-percent charge, Alpha programs the generator to kick on.