In 2004, EDF and FedEx did something that had never been done before—we launched the first “street-ready” hybrid trucks.

Today, hybrids appear in hundreds of corporate fleets, sporting logos like UPS, Coca-Cola and the U.S. Postal Service, and our partnership has paved the way for a new generation of even cleaner trucks that will bear little resemblance to the fossil-fuel-dependent behemoths of the past.

Launching an industry revolution

It started as a dream to transform trucking in America. “Trucks are essential to our economy, but they take a big toll on our health and environment,” says EDF VP for Corporate Partnerships Gwen Ruta. Large diesel trucks and buses release 7% of America’s greenhouse gas emissions, a third of the pollution that causes smog, and a quarter of the soot emissions that contribute to ailments like asthma and cancer.

EDF knew we needed a partner with clout to spark big change, so in 2000 we approached FedEx. Together, we agreed to develop a truck that would

  • Reduce soot emissions 90%
  • Increase fuel efficiency 50%
  • Offer the same functionality as a standard delivery truck
  • Be cost competitive over the truck lifetime

Some of the company’s truck suppliers had not yet worked with hybrid technology, but when FedEx expressed interest, they leapt into action. EDF and FedEx reviewed 20 proposals and chose Eaton Corporation of Cleveland, Ohio, to design the hybrid system. Extensive development and testing led to a vehicle that exceeded our environmental goals [PDF] while standing up to the rigors of life on the road.

The revolution takes hold

Our success sparked a surge of interest, but because upfront costs for this new technology were high, EDF turned to expanding government incentives for purchasing cleaner trucks. “We brought hybrid trucks off the drawing board and into the real world,” says Ruta. “But we needed more than one fleet to transform the market.”

We helped shape EPA’s National Clean Diesel Campaign—funded in 2010 to the tune of $60 million a year—which enables fleet owners to offset 25% of the cost of new hybrids. And we put our efforts behind incentive programs in 15 states, including a $25 million program in California that will help the state meet its greenhouse gas reduction goals.

Thanks in part to these incentives, thousands of hybrid trucks now travel America’s roads, with more coming off the assembly line all the time. “We are getting closer to the scale of production that will finally erase the cost differential for hybrids,” says EDF fleet project manager Jason Mathers.

The market diversifies

From a single hybrid truck model introduced in 2004 to the nearly 40 currently on the market, hybrid truck manufacturers continue to innovate. In 2007, Walmart took delivery of the industry’s first hybrid tractor-trailer truck, the result of a partnership between manufacturers Peterbilt and Eaton Corporation. The truck increases fuel efficiency 5-7%, a significant figure given the number of miles these highway trucks travel each year.

A bridge to the future

Perhaps the most significant legacy of the EDF and FedEx partnership: It spurred manufacturers to develop batteries and electric power systems for medium- and heavy-duty trucks. These are the cornerstone technologies for the plug-in hybrids and all-electric vehicles of the future. “Fleet owners have seen this technology work,” notes Ruta. “They are poised to accept a truck that departs entirely from the century-old internal combustion engine. That’s true market transformation.”

FedEx today: A fleet transformed

As of 2010, FedEx operates one of the largest hybrid fleets in the industry, with more than 1,800 alternative energy vehicles worldwide, including the first all-electric parcel delivery trucks in the United States. Four electric FedEx trucks now operate in the Los Angeles area.

When FedEx saw the results of its prototype hybrids, it envisioned the possibility of rolling out hybrids across its entire fleet. But as an emerging technology, hybrids were more expensive than either partner anticipated. Instead, says EDF project manager Jason Mathers, FedEx has achieved something more fundamental: “FedEx has become much more sophisticated about managing its entire fleet to reduce emissions,” he says.

The company has set a goal of improving the efficiency of its entire fleet 20% by 2020. To achieve this, FedEx optimizes routes and uses smaller, more fuel-efficient “sprinter” vans. Its couriers in New York City and London’s West End deliver many of their packages on foot and by bicycle. And the company continues to push the technology envelope with compressed natural gas vehicles in Italy, all-electric vehicles in Paris, and biodiesel trucks in Washington. D.C.