Bloomington-based Thermo King has made refrigerated diesel trucks and rail cars for 81 years. Now it's now zooming into the small electric van arena.
Later this month, Thermo King unveils its prototype for a refrigerated food-delivery van that runs on electricity with zero exhaust.
The technology, which took 11 months and more than $250,000 to develop, was created with truck maker Chanje.
The duo's demonstration van debuts April 24-25 at the Advanced Clean Transportation (ACT) Expo in Long Beach, Calif. The vehicle produces zero emissions and can carry 4,000 pounds of produce 120 miles before it needs recharging, officials said.
Thermo King's contribution — the electric refrigeration system and solar panels — was specifically designed to make that "last-mile delivery" of fresh produce — from giant warehouses to neighborhood restaurants and stores — as green as possible.
Thermo King officials say the "last-mile delivery" trend is worldwide.
"This project will be key to Thermo King's companywide sustainability commitment and to improving the efficiencies and environmental footprint of diesel-powered products," said Thermo King spokeswoman Stephanie Moncada. The goal is to "develop hybrid and full-electric options that combat exhaust, carbon dioxide and noise pollution."
While city buses and commuter trains are increasingly diesel-free and electric, many large delivery trucks still run on diesel. Traditionally, that diesel gas has powered not only the vehicle, but any refrigeration systems too.
Thermo King and Chanje want to change that.
Last year, Thermo King, which manufacturers hefty equipment in Bloomington that has cooled big rigs, rail cars, buses and light-rail trains for decades, dedicated 10 engineers, product managers and technicians to the task of cooling something smaller — a little electric icebox that can drive local streets for hours without plugging in.
Thermo King and five Chanje engineers toiled for nearly a year to perfect the product.
Now clean energy buffs attending the ACT Expo will literally get to kick the tires this month. Next month, prospective fleet customers will get to embed the vehicles into their businesses for a test run. In return, Thermo King and Chanje want suggestions.
"We are targeting customers who are seeking to adopt all electric options into their fleets," Moncada said. "Thermo King, Chanje and the customer will have the opportunity to learn more about how the use of these technologies may drive changes in operations."
Thermo King wants to learn if fleet managers will change delivery routes because of the van's 120-mile battery power load. They want to know if more electrical charge stations or other infrastructure are needed and how well the van's solar energy panels are received.
The van uses Thermo King's solar energy panels, which help power the vehicle's 12-volt energy and refrigerator system.
While the van should graduate to the next phase of production soon, officials won't say when or how much the final version might cost.
If successful, Thermo King and Chanje will join other refrigerated vehicle makers in the electric segment of the market, including Johnson Refrigerated Truck Bodies, Nissan in Tokyo and Alke in Italy. These manufacturers and even Coca-Cola delivery trucks introduced different electric or hybrid refrigeration options for cargo in recent years. Some approaches only exist abroad.
Right now, Thermo and Chanje are focused on the U.S. market and believe there's room for more players. They are already in talks with other OEM vehicle makers exploring possible partnerships.
"The global refrigerated-vehicle market is expected to reach $16.5 billion by 2022," said Chanje marketing director Ian Televik. "In the United States, we are seeing increasing demand for medium-duty, last-mile refrigerated solutions due to a steady increase in consumers doing their shopping online and expecting 'home fast' home deliveries."
The time is ripe. Thermo King officials point to Target, Walmart, Whole Foods and smaller outfits who are dueling for online grocery orders and home deliveries. FedEx and the U.S. Postal Service have embraced electric delivery vehicles in California and New York. At the same time, manufacturers elsewhere have drafted new sustainability goals to slash the carbon footprint of factories, suppliers and customers.
Meanwhile, municipalities want fewer gas emissions on their streets and more alternatives to cleanly transporting humans and products. Some have embraced electric cabs and free electric shuttle services. Concerned with smog, California adopted strict gas emission regulations for light-duty vehicles that could take effect as soon as 2025.
"A lot of our customers are trying to stay ahead of this regulation. It's coming up quickly in California and in Europe as well," Moncada said.