On The Scene: Electric future


Electric cars: it’s a big buzz, but do we know where the future is really going? Trucking company Navistar came to Portland this week to launch their new $149,000 all-electric van, and the tone was optimistic.

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The first thing I noticed at Tuesday’s Estar electric van launch was that they were serving salmon, for free. The next was that I was one of just six women in the crowd.

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But then, I’m not a truck person.

Navistar selected Portland to be the host for their initial market launch of the new Estar electric van. The van, a real “category creator” in the words of one excitable booster, can go 100 miles on one 6-to-8-hour charge and carry 4,000 pounds. It produces zero tailpipe emissions–in fact, it doesn’t even have a tailpipe. And its battery can be replaced in 20 minutes. (For the record, the vehicle costs $149,000).

Navistar’s vans were designed, from inception to launch, in 24 months. The project was funded in part by a stimulus grant from the U.S. government, and was the first project to produce a product with the stimulus money for sustainable vehicles.

Those in attendance at the launch were mostly potential buyers: fleet managers looking to see if the new electric van really was what they were looking for.

I met one of those prospective buyers, Franko Martinez, Engineering Facilities Services Manager for Port of Portland. He said he was looking for “sustainability and viability.”

“We have a need for vehicles that will go no more than 100 miles a day, mostly between 20-25 miles per hour… and can carry 2 plus tons.”

The presentation of the van was impressive. There was music, there was driving of vehicles inside, there were large, exciting visual aids, and those cool clear teleprompters that Obama uses. Jim Hebe, Navistar’s VP for North American sales operations, spoke, and then Oregon Transportation Commission Chair Gail Achterman and Portland Mayor Sam Adams took the stage.

Adams spoke on Portland’s vision for a green vehicle future, and about the plan to fast-track installation of 1,000 electric vehicle charging stations in Oregon in the coming months.

“This is an amazing vehicle. I look forward to being a purchaser of these vans, on behalf of the taxpayers, as part of our fleet’s transition from fossil fuel to electric vehicles.”

But Navistar’s goal is to move beyond relying on government support and environmental controls.

“It doesn’t take a government mandate [to motivate the company’s innovations],” said Hebe. “Competition is our strongest motivator.”

Angela Webber is the online editor for Oregon Business.

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