This could shape up to be the year that electric vehicles (EVs) finally begin to gain some serious traction, both in the commercial and automotive sectors. There are numerous electric vehicle manufacturers working in the U.S. and their trucks, vans and cars are garnering new attention in both fleet appications and in competitions.

Just yesterday AC Propulsion announced that a Yokohama-sponsored electric race car using AC Propulsion’s proprietary electric drive system broke its own 2010 record at the 89th annual Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. The AC Propulsion-equipped vehicle won the hill climb's Exhibition Class and set a new EV record with a time of 12:20:084, besting last year's record-breaking time of 13:17:575 by nearly one minute. It was also the race’s fastest EV among both cars and motorcycles.

“AC Propulsion electric drive systems deliver performance,” said AC Propulsion CEO Tom Gage. “Our string of Pikes Peak EV records--especially this one, where we are well into the 12-minute bracket--clearly demonstrates that electric vehicles can get up the hill fast. Now that more people are buying EVs, it's important to offer really good performance. For us, the old racing slogan holds: win on Sunday, sell on Monday."

Mark Aubry, vice president of sales and marketing for electric vehicles at Navistar International shares Gage’s enthusiasm for the hill-taking ability of electric vehicles. “Electric vehicles can handle the hills, in spite of popular opinion to the contrary,” he said. “Yes, you will have a decrease in range in a hilly environment, but you recapture some of that going down the hills. Still, even in San Francisco, an electric vehicle could easily do forty to fifty miles per day, no problem.”

The GGT Electric 2011 “Scout” electric pickup truck also recently won three major awards presented at the Third Annual Michigan Electric Vehicle Show & Rally -- best four-wheel production, most creative electric vehicle and best of show.

“We were completely knocked out by the response we got at the Michigan Electric Vehicle Show,” said Ray Leduc, CEO of GGT Electric. “It was an amazing experience to be able to show the organizers and the attendees how functional and rugged an all-electric truck can be – to have that personal interaction with them. And then to have that experience validated by winning best of show and most creative vehicle. What a great night!

“It was wonderful to see the EV community embrace a manufacturer that maybe doesn’t have the corporate reach of Chevy or Toyota, but that is just as committed to delivering well-built, affordable, eco-friendly electric vehicles,” he added.

As attention-grabbing as awards are, for fleets looking at all-electric trucks considerations have to be more practical. Range is the single-most important factor when considering battery-powered vehicles, according to Jeff Kessen, director of transportation marketing for A123 Systems, a supplier of lithium-ion batteries including batteries for hybrid vehicles and for plug-in electric chassis. “Range is the key word,” he said. “It is the most important thing to think about. You might be surprised at how much sense an all-electric truck can make if the range and application are right.”

When Kessen and other electric vehicle experts talk about range, they mean short, regular and steady. “The ROI calculation really depends upon how much you use the vehicle every day,” Kessen said. “If you buy a 100-mile truck and drive it 70 to 80 miles per day five days a week, in about one year your battery costs will be equal to or less than what you would be paying to fuel a comparable conventionally powered vehicle.”

Aubry echoes Kessen’s advice. International introduced the eStar all-electric van in 2010. “Larger, global fleets with a focus on metropolitan service, such as FedEx, are ideal customers for electric vehicles,” he said. “The ideal duty cycle is a regular route of 100 miles per day or less with frequent starts and stops and a return to the same home base for recharging at the end of the shift. That reduces so-called ‘range anxiety,’ provides the best all-around vehicle performance, reduces maintenance and repair issues, and reduces or eliminates the need to build-out a network of charging stations.”

The electric vehicle market is not entirely devoted to light-duty vehicles, either. Balwinder Samra, CEO and president of Balqon Corporation Advanced Transportation Solutions is convinced that there is also a place for medium- and heavy-duty all-electric vehicles.

“Our background is in electric ground support vehicles, such as fueling carts for airports and yard tractors,” Samra said. “Balqon has extended that experience to the development of a battery-powered Class 8 yard tractor built on an AutoCar chassis that can operate up to 16 hours without recharging.”

Samra acknowledges that the mass and weight of the required batteries can be an issue for many over-the-road applications, but says there are plenty of jobs battery-powered, zero-emissions vehicles can handle. Rail yards are being forced to go electric, he said, and there are cities in the world, such as Buenos Aires, which will only allow electric vehicles to operate after a certain hour because of pollution and noise.