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US Set to Lead Hybrid Truck Industry Worldwide

Berjerone Mason has been a FedEx courier in Washington, D.C., for the past 11 years. He begins his workday at the FedEx station around 5 a.m., checks his truck and sorts and loads his packages. When the fleet heads out a few hours later, he's on his own. He'll make some 70 deliveries by the end of the day.

Mason gets good service from his truck. While it looks exactly like every FedEx delivery van, it is actually one of just three in the Washington fleet equipped with a hybrid, diesel-electric engine.

FedEx was the first in its industry to put a hybrid truck on the road and now operates 200 worldwide, with the largest active fleet in North America. Mason was assigned the hybrid three years ago, and he says he notices the difference in how it drives.

"Typically, when I was driving the diesel, I found myself filling up at least twice a week. With this truck, it's just once every other week, so the gas mileage is a lot better than the diesel," he says.

United States in good position to lead hybrid truck industry

About a month ago, Mason's FedEx truck was among more than a dozen hybrid trucks on display in front of the U.S. Capitol for an event called "Hybrid on the Hill Day." The shiny vehicles - dump trucks, soda trucks, utility trucks, delivery trucks, school buses and big tractor-trailers rigs - parked nearby make a statement, says event coordinator Bill Van Amburg, vice president of CALSTART, a non-profit group promoting clean transportation alternatives.

"All of the major truck makers in the United States have now either entered or are about to enter early low-volume production," he says. "So we have the beginnings of a marketplace and the beginnings of a pretty robust supply chain, but we are right on the cusp of market."

According to a new Duke University report, that market has enormous potential. While Japan took an early lead in the hybrid passenger car industry, the study finds that the United States - with hybrid truck manufacturing, assembly or research and development operations in 30 states - is poised to take the lead with hybrid trucks.

Benefits include cleaner air, more jobs, lower costs

Van Amburg says growing the industry would help cut fuel consumption, reduce carbon and soot emissions and boost the economy with new high-tech green jobs.

"We're talking about engineering, energy storage, lightweight materials, power electronics and system control software," he explains.

Van Amburg anticipates "tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of jobs over the next 10 years."

For companies like FedEx, hybrid vehicles also represent potentially huge savings in annual fuel costs and also underscore the firm's commitment to green practices, such as reducing climate-changing emissions.

Industry wants subsidies to get up and running

John Formosano is vice president for global vehicles for FedEx Express. He says the hybrids are significantly more expensive to buy than conventional trucks, and the company is hoping for some kind of government subsidy to permit more affordable fleet purchases.

"We would really like to see both federal and state incentives to help us deploy the technology," he says.

Subsidies would also be a boon to hybrid truck manufacturers, says CALSTART's Bill Van Amburg, because, as with any new technology, a financial jump-start can spark demand and help get production rolling.

"If we can get up to five to 10,000 units per year, we will be at the point where the technology sustains itself for price and justifies a fleet purchasing it." But, Van Amburg adds, "We've got to get over those first numbers and first volumes."

Compared to passenger cars, he says, "It is not that many vehicles. It's a very doable, very discrete target that we've laid out."

As for Berjerone Mason, the FedEx driver, he'd like to hold on to his fuel-saving, low-emissions truck for as long as he can.

"I don't plan on letting it go. They may want someone else to experience what I've experienced." And, he adds with a chuckle, "If it comes down to that, I'll have to let it go."