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UPS plans broader usage of composite vehicles

UPS plans broader usage of composite vehicles

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The logistics company saved about 900 pounds per vehicle, about 10 percent of the total weight.

UPS is preparing to buy 150 composite vehicles to conserve fuel after testing five vehicles in extreme route situations for the past 14 months.

The composite test vehicles yielded a 40 percent improvement in fuel economy, largely due to the more than 900 pounds that UPS was able to trim off a loaded truck's average weight, said Dale Spencer, UPS's director of automotive engineering.

The vehicles were tested on extreme routes in the United States: over 200 miles of dirt road near Lincoln, Neb.; cold weather city Albany, N.Y.; the desert near Tucson, Ariz.; and near Flint, Mich., and Atlanta so that development teams from UPS and its partner, Utilimaster, could have access to the test vehicles.

"We discovered that the unexpected non-technology solutions may have a bigger impact as far as fuel savings go," Spencer said.

The 150-horsepower trucks involved in the trial were Utilimaster/Isuzu REACH vehicles, with a capacity of 630 cubic feet in cargo space. The P70, which is the truck that UPS is replacing with these vehicles, has a capacity of 700 cubic feet.

The composite plastic was primarily used for the lower and rear body panels, which can bend back into shape if they are hit. The panels are molded in the final color, which means scratches are difficult to see, said John Knudtson, vice president of product development at Utilimaster. "Repairs are easier, scratches are less noticeable," he said.

The composite was also used for the dashboard and for the front bumper.

Weight savings also came by using fiberglass for the roof. Although composite was tested for the floor of the cargo space, UPS opted for traditional aluminum materials, Spencer said.

The bumpers of the vehicle are made from materials including recycled rubber (ground up tires), which helps improve durability. That's important when you consider that UPS keeps its vehicles on the road in service between 15 years and 20 years.

Aside from the weight, which translated into better economy, the composite trucks offer formidable durability and reliability advantages, Spencer and Knudtson said.

"I don't remember doing things as drastic as what we have done with this test," Spencer said. "This was a super successful project."

UPS plans to have another 150 composite vehicles on the road by the end of 2012; it will also study ways to incorporate the composite design into other UPS package car models, according to UPS and Utilimaster. UPS hasn't committed publicly to the routes where the new composite vehicles will be deployed, but they likely will be focused in the west first, Spencer said.

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Heather Clancy

Section Editor

Heather Clancy has written for United Press International, ZDNet, Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She holds a degree from McGill University. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure