[pagebreak:Pimp My Commercial Truck] Think your gas prices are bad? Now think about the prices trucking companies are paying.

After all, grocery-delivery companies, for example, can find themselves lugging up to 16,000 pounds of truck and cargo around, and that means a lot of fuel.

Electrorides hopes its electric commercial trucks can help ease that pain, and make some money in the process.

The startup, founded last year with $500,000 of self-funding, plans to come out of stealth mode next month when it debuts a prototype of its electric truck, called ZeroTruck, company founder and CEO Tedd Abramson told Greentech Media this week.-

The ZeroTruck has a converted 2008 Isuzu N-Series chassis, which customers can match with different bodies.

The company is building its first prototype of the medium-duty truck, which is a size up from the largest pickup trucks, but smaller than a big rig. Abramson said Electrorides plans to unveil the prototype at the Alternative Fuels and Vehicles National Conference, starting May 11 in Las Vegas.

Without cargo, the truck will be able to drive more than 100 miles on one charge. But the range could drop below 100 miles when fully loaded, when the truck can weigh more than seven tons.
 
The prototype is equipped with an electric motor from alternative-energy technology developer UQM Technologies (AMEX: UQM) and a lithium-polymer battery pack from South Korea manufacturer EIG. Abramson said Electrorides is considering other partners for its commercial version and hopes to finalize its suppliers by June. 

The company plans to begin taking orders for the ZeroTruck in June, when it also expects to begin its beta phase, and to make its first deliveries in August, he said.

Aside from the all-electric version, Electrorides plans to offer a series-hybrid version of the ZeroTruck. And that’s where its own technology comes into play.
 
The company has developed a "carbon-neutral charging system," which is essentially a diesel engine modified to use 100-percent filtered vegetable oil or biodiesel. Drivers can control when to turn on the engine, which is attached to a generator and is mounted on the truck’s frame.

A series, or serial, hybrid usually pairs an electric motor with a fuel engine that gives  the vehicle unlimited range. Unlike hybrids on the streets today, series hybrids use only the motor -- not the engine -- to propel the vehicle.

By filling up with vegetable oil or biodiesel, the company claims the hybrid version will get an additional 100 miles before having to refuel or recharge.

Electrorides is far from the first company racing to bring electric vehicles to the streets. Tesla Motors, perhaps the best-known electric-car startup, began "regular production" of its electric sports cars in March (see Tesla Begins ’Regular Production’ of Roadsters).

Last week, ZENN Motor Co. said it would launch its cityZENN, expected to drive up to 250 miles in one charge and reach a top speed of 80 miles per hour, in 2009, and Aptera said it would begin manufacturing its Typ-1 three-wheeled electric vehicle this year (see Sci-fi Inspired Vehicle to Hit California Roads).

And on Wednesday, Indianapolis-based EnerDel said it had delivered the first lithium-ion battery prototype for Norwegian electric-car company Think Global. The prototype is being evaluated for the new Think City model and EnerDel said it expects to have the battery pack operating in the vehicle by mid-year.

But the bulk of news has been about cars. Commercial truck manufactures haven’t been as eager to push for electric technology, said Chris Fisher, senior commercial analyst for Power Systems Research.

Instead, most commercial-truck manufacturers going green have focused on hybrid technology.

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Last week, Denton, Texas-based Peterbilt Motors said full hybrid production on two versions of its medium duty trucks would start this summer.

Fisher said Peterbilt, a division of truck manufacturing giant Paccar (NSDQ: PCR), is at the forefront of those working to bring hybrid technology to medium-duty trucks -- but still isn’t spending much money on hybrids.

"They are doing a wait and see," Fisher said, meaning that the company is testing the waters to assess the demand for hybrid trucks.

Still, Electrorides has at least one potential competitor. U.K.-based Smith Electric Vehicles said in December it would open a commercial-vehicle manufacturing plant in the United States, claiming its research found a potential U.S. market of around 200,000 commercial electric vehicles per year (see Who’s Reviving the Electric Car?).

Although Smith did not specify which vehicles would be made, the company does have a medium-duty truck in its fleet. But regardless of whether trucking companies want to go green, the cost of electric commercial trucks remains a challenge.

"Most fleet operators couldn’t absorb the cost of the electric-drive technology," admitted Abramson, who said the price of an electric truck is about four times that of a regular internal-combustion truck. The Isuzu trucks’ price is about $30,000, he said, which would suggest a Zero Truck price of about $120,000.

So will customers be able to get a return on their investment? If they drive 100 miles per day -- the full range of the vehicle -- and five days a week, they would travel up to 26,000 miles per year. If they get only 10 miles per gallon -- the lowest fuel economy in the range for one of Isuzu’s medium-duty models, called the NPR -- that would equal 2,600 gallons per year of savings. With diesel at an average price of $3.65 per gallon in Los Angeles county last week, that comes out to a savings of $9,490 per year, according to Greentech Media calculations.
 
At that rate, it would take about nine and a half years to make up the difference in cost, and Abramson said most companies only keep their medium-duty trucks for eight years. But he expects Zero Trucks will have a longer lifetime of up to 20 years, as well as lower expected maintenance costs that also will save customers money.

Still, the high upfront cost will limit Electrorides’ market to profitable companies that can make that kind of investment, keeping the startup a small player for now. 

Abramson hopes that dynamic will change as the cost of batteries and electric motors come down and the price of oil continues to grow.

Until then, Electrorides plans to use a novel business model to help it gain a foothold in the space.

Electrorides will sell advertising on Zero Trucks equipped with billboards. The first truck is set to cruise Los Angeles in August, and the company plans to have 10 more vehicles advertising on Southern California roads by the end of the year, Abramson said.

The business, called ZeroGreenMedia, is sure to make some environmentalists cringe, as the Zero Truck will be adding to the city’s congestion problems and eating up electricity for the purpose of advertising.

But Abramson said these types of mobile-media vehicles already are being used by advertisers and Electrorides’ truck, which will be charged fromsolarpower and emit no pollution, will offer a greener option.
 
That theory might work -- provided the charging isn’t planned for one of Los Angeles’ rare cloudy days.

-- Editor Jennifer Kho contributed to this story.