AUTOS:

Ford looks to clean up delivery market with Transit Connect

When Ford Motor Co. released its Transit Connect van, the automaker pitched it as a greener option for businesses that didn't want to use a large, gas-guzzling van when a smaller vehicle would do.

Now, the automaker has debuted an electric version of the van, in an effort to win an ever smaller niche of low-range, low-cargo businesses and utilities.

AT&T Inc. last week became the first buyer of the electric vans, agreeing to purchase two units when they become available in the fourth quarter of 2010. Azure Dynamics Corp., which is developing and selling the vehicles along with Ford, said it is working on lining up other potential customers and expects more announcements in the coming months.

Jay Sandler, the vice president of sales for Azure that is spearheading the vehicle sales, said the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

"People are excited all over the country," Sandler said, adding that he had been on the road for three-and-a-half straight weeks meeting with customers. "At this point, we haven't been going prospecting. ... People have made firm handshakes."

Sandler said the truck has been an easy sell because the truck combines the utility of the old van with a zero-emission electric vehicle that appeals to companies looking to reduce their carbon footprint. With 35.2 cubic feet of cargo room and the capacity for up to 1,000 pounds of payload, the hatchback is smaller than a traditional commercial van, but larger than a passenger van.

The van perfectly filled a "white space" in the delivery industry, Ford marketing manager Gerry Koss said.

"There's the caterer, there's the florist that has to make deliveries, there's the electrician that may want a vehicle, but doesn't need a large van for his operation," Koss said. "It has high cube space and it's very customizable for all businesses."

'Gets the job done'

The van was named the 2010 North American Truck of the Year at the North American International Auto Show and experienced great success in Europe before its U.S. launch. Then in November, Ford announced a partnership with Azure for an electric version of the Transit Connect. Ford will develop the exterior of the truck, while Azure will add the battery and electric components at a plant in Michigan.

The electric van will get a range of 80 miles on an 8-hour charge from a 220-volt outlet. The 28 kilowatt-hour battery is stored below the vehicle, eliminating the problem of the bulky battery taking up room. The van also uses electricity, not an alternator, to power everything in the car, making it zero-emission.

While the limited mileage and long charge time could seem like restrictive elements, Koss said that makes the vehicle ideal for a select set of customers: repairmen, utility companies or delivery trucks on a specific, urban route.

"You can get companies that do repairs and may make two or three stops a day and carry cargo in the back," Koss said. "Any company that has a sustainability initiative and can operate within the required duty cycle is ideal."

AT&T Inc. has made an ideal customers because its technicians drive within specified routes with relatively few stops. The company has also made a big push to clean up its 77,000-vehicle fleet.

"Cleaner, alternative-fuel vehicles are the future of our corporate fleet, and the Transit Connect Electric represents a real breakthrough and will be a strong addition to our range of alternative-fuel vehicles," said Jerome Webber, vice president of fleet operations at AT&T, in a release. "It's exactly the kind of vehicle we envisioned when we mapped our long-term vision to invest up to $565 million to deploy more than 15,000 alternative-fuel vehicles through 2018."

Sandler said they are also looking for utility companies, government agencies, food delivery services and courier fleets to take some of the 1,000 initial vehicles to be produced in the fall. He said it has been an easy pitch, since most of these firms are either looking for the appropriately sized vehicle or for an electric or hybrid option. Similar companies find gas-powered vehicles wasteful, since the cars are only used for short distances and can be left idling during short deliveries. They also tend to require more maintenance, which Sandler said was not a problem for the electric vans. What's more, he added, the ride is smooth.

"It's also great to drive," Sandler said. "It's not like you get in the vehicle and say, 'This is weird, it's electric.' Once you get over 15-20 mph, you don't even notice a difference."

The van has not received rave reviews, but most say the van is effective for what it is. "The [battery-electric vehicle] surprised us with just how normal it was," said a CNET reviewer, adding that the ride was smooth and similar to a gas-powered vehicle. "She's not [a] looker, but the general consensus is that the Transit Connect gets the job done."

The van's debut comes as many companies are looking for ways to reduce emissions from their vehicle fleets. Sandler said the company has tentative agreements with several companies but is working on finalizing pricing. Once that happens in mid-April, there will be a flurry of purchases, he said.

"We've got a crowd around us at auto shows," Sandler said. "It resonates with the commitment and social corporate attitudes. It's the future of alternative methods."

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