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COL FedEx hopes hybrid trucks dramatically cut fuel costs

Americans have a great need to lessen their dependence on oil and gasoline, but so far we have not had the zeal for conservation nor the good sense to do so.

Now it appears that technology rather than good choices might be one answer to cutting the nation's appetite for an expensive and diminishing resource.

And businesses, with their constant demand for cutting unnecessary expenses, might lead the way. The FedEx Corp. -- which has 42,000 vans and delivery trucks -- is planning to convert its fleet to hybrid vehicles powered by diesel engines and electric motors. The switch is expected to cut the company's fuel costs by 50 percent when fully implemented.

The hybrid trucks are similar in principle to small hybrid cars that get from 45 to 50 miles per gallon and are powered both by a small gasoline engine and an electric motor.

Reducing fuel costs is important because the FedEx delivery vans collectively are driven 2 million miles a day.

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David J. Bronczek, president of the company's FedEx Express division, said a major advantage of the change is that it will make the company less sensitive to fluctuations in fuel prices. In an interview with the New York Times, he said, "When OPEC's fuel price swing one way or another, the effects on costs are significant."

Efforts to reduce fuel costs for commercial trucks are important because they are used more heavily than passenger cars. Trucks operated by FedEx are on the road 10 to 12 hours a day, compared to an average of two hours per day for passenger cars. In addition, the trucks last for 250,000 miles or more, compared to 100,000 miles or so for private cars.

FedEx officials said the switch to hybrids also will have environmental advantages. The trucks will reduce emissions of particles by 90 percent and of nitrogen dioxide, which causes smog, by 75 percent.

Other companies also are making changes. United Parcel Service operates 1,024 vehicles that are driven by compressed natural gas and Daimler-Chrysler expects to produce one truck driven by a hydrogen fuel cell by 2004.

The quickest way to reduce the nation's dependence on imported oil would be to induce auto manufacturers to increase the gas mileage for standard cars and sport utility vehicles, which can be done without any major technological changes. That is still needed, but at least there is some hope for cutting oil consumption by pursuing new power plants, as FedEx is planning to do.

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