Indianapolis Star: Indiana's Utilimaster testing lightweight van for FedEx, UPS

With nearly 120,000 of their delivery vehicles trucking around the streets of the world, every gallon of fuel that delivery operators FedEx and UPS can save really adds up. So they've both turned to a small Northern Indiana company in Wakarusa to try something new in the hunt for a better van, easier to operate and cheaper to fuel.

They both say they may have found at least 35 percent better fuel mileage with a new 4-cylinder diesel engine and a truck made of lightweight composite materials.

FedEx and UPS are each testing five pre-production versions of the new commercial-duty delivery truck dubbed the Reach by builder Utilimaster and engine supplier Isuzu.

John Marshall, vice president of Utilimaster, said Thursday that if the tests continue to prove the promised 35 percent improvement in mileage, full-scale production of the new vehicle is to begin by late this year.

That could mean hiring an additional 100 to 150 workers at Utilimaster, which now has about 600 workers assembling other vehicles, including versions that are all-electric, hybrids and other types of commercial trucks and vans.

Also, the company is now adding a second shift and needs 100 skilled workers, which is one reason Elkhart County economic development officials said Utilimaster is a bright spot in a region that was formerly at the center of the nation's economic meltdown.

Instead, Utilimaster has invested more than $10 million -- none of it granted or lent from the federal government -- to prepare designs and a production line to make the new lightweight truck.

FedEx, which also is testing all-electric trucks assembled by Navistar in another plant in Wakarusa, has a goal of improving the overall average mileage of its worldwide fleet by 20 percent by 2020, said spokeswoman Deborah Willig. The company also is using some trucks modified with hybrid fuel systems by Utilimaster.

"We're trying several technologies to see if it would be a good move," she said.

It may be telling that a scale model of the new Utilimaster/Isuzu composite Reach sits in the lobby of the FedEx world headquarters in Memphis, Tenn.

Marshall said the Reach uses a chassis and 150-horsepower clean-diesel engine from Japan's Isuzu.

Most commercial-grade diesels are fuel-gulping 8-cylinder engines. In typical delivery vans, they may yield 5 to 10 miles per gallon.

Marshall said Isuzu has provided the only 4-cylinder commercial-grade diesel available for use in the Reach, which cuts the weight and helps raise the fuel economy to about 15 miles a gallon.

"We brought both of the companies (FedEx and UPS) in at an early stage of the design process two years ago to get their needs upfront," he said. "They wanted a vehicle that was long-lasting, reliable and gets good fuel economy."

The result is more aerodynamic, and it looks a little different on the street from the usual FedEx and UPS vans. It is designed with the durability of 300,000 miles or, say, 10 years of service.

The production versions -- available to the public late this year at 400 Isuzu dealers nationwide -- also have been designed for businesses such as plumbers, florists and bakeries, Marshall said. Selling price has not been announced, but he said it will be similar to competitors.

The prototype truck is slightly smaller and carries about 4,200 pounds, compared with 4,800 pounds in the typical mainstay delivery vans.

FedEx is testing its Reach vans in Arkansas, Tennessee and Michigan, while UPS has them on the roads of Arizona, Georgia, Nebraska, New York and Michigan.

"This technology is available to us today," said Dale Spencer, director of engineering at UPS. "We don't have to worry about plugging it in or getting propane or CNG (compressed natural gas.)"


-Bruce Smith, Indianapolis Star