Vancouver's new all-electric Canada Post delivery vehicles are free of emissions, mostly silent – and all too often, undriveable because of drained batteries.
According to union representatives and Canada Post, the vehicles have had some issues with dead displays and damaged charging equipment, but the most common problem is drivers sometimes forget to recharge their rides at the end of the night.
Despite the troubles that have some mail carriers griping about the vehicles, union and management agree that the new green vehicles are the future of their business.
"There are growing pains," said Steve Clark, the director of fleet management for Canada Post. "As with any new vehicle or technology they're not without issues or learning. … It's to be expected that you'll have some things that can go wrong."
Vancouver received three of the postal service's four new eStar step vans this spring. The fourth is in Toronto, but it is soon expected to join its siblings for regular service on the West Coast.
Mr. Clark said three of the vans have been sidelined with problems since they joined the fleet.
Raj Deo, a technician at Canada Post, said the issues sometimes come at the end of a long day of slinging mail.
"They forget to do the right things," he said. "They start hooking them up wrong and the battery dies."
Other times they forget to plug them in at all. "Maybe they're rushed sometimes," Mr. Deo suggested.
He said it will take time for drivers to figure out the new technology. "They shouldn't blame the vehicles," he said. "This is a brand new electrical fleet."
Charging the vehicles incorrectly may be easier than it seems. Driver warnings listed in the eStar operating instructions are numerous, from the surprising: "Don't wear jewellery when handling the charging equipment," to the ominous: "Make sure your feet are not in standing water while plugging in."
According to Mr. Clark, electric arcing between the charging handle and the side of the vehicle can occur. It happens if drivers forget to turn off the battery charger before removing the handle, and it can quickly wear out components.
"If someone is quick on the draw you can beat the system," he said.
Despite their blemished introduction, the vehicles boast remarkable features, including zero emissions and a range of 160 kilometres on a six- to eight-hour charge.
"From empty to full it costs $8 to power that battery," Mr. Clark said. "The average postal route is 50 kilometres. That's $2.75 (per route) … you can't even power up a gasoline step van for that price."
But the cost and environmental savings come with a downside – a steep purchase price. Mr. Clark said the list price per vehicle is $150,000 (U.S.), or two to three times the price of gasoline-powered alternatives.
The addition of eStar vans is part of a push by Canada Post to reduce the environmental impact of its 7,000-plus-vehicle fleet. According to company figures, postal vehicles drove some 75 million kilometres in 2010 while delivering 10.6 billion pieces of mail. Canada Post claimed to have reduced fleet emissions by 5 per cent that year, thanks in part to greener vehicles.
John Bail, a national director with the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, said the union is highly supportive of the new fleet.
"I believe the future of Canada Post should include electric vehicles," Mr. Bail said. "We're all going to have to work hard to make them work."