See more of the story

As American car buyers cautiously dip their toes into the world of electric vehicles, pondering issues such as cost, charging times and driving range, big businesses and some government agencies are going in headfirst.

The Antelope Valley Transit Authority, which serves some 450,000 residents in parts of Los Angeles County, wants to be the first transit agency with an all-electric bus fleet. It hopes to ditch all its diesel vehicles by the end of the year and replace them with 80 fully electric versions.

Reducing pollutants is a high priority for Antelope Valley, which includes the cities of Palmdale and Lancaster, because the area has the highest rate of asthma and deaths from respiratory diseases in the county, according to the county health department. "This switch-over makes sense for the environment," said Len Engel, the transit authority's executive director.

The same factors that appeal to consumers make an electric vehicle a good fit for commercial applications. Electric motors offer the low-speed torque such vehicles need, without the roar or exhaust of their diesel counterparts. And while range anxiety could be a concern for the typical car buyer, operators of buses and similar vehicles tend to stay close to home, needing a range of 100 miles or less.

McKinsey & Company, the management consulting group, forecasts that electric light- and medium-duty trucks — a group that includes pickups, flatbeds and some trash haulers — could achieve between 8 percent and 34 percent sales penetration by 2030. The wide range depends on market conditions: Fleet owners need parity in the total cost of ownership between a traditional diesel-powered vehicle and an electric one. And municipal air-quality regulations may spur or slow down the adoption of electric commercial fleets.

"Our latest perspective is that U.S. break-even for long haul could be between 2025 and 2030," said Russell Hensley, one of the report's authors.

Hensley said two factors were holding back the commercial electric market: a limited number of models and the relative infancy of fast-charging technology.

But businesses and governments are still jumping on board. This month, the Chicago Transit Authority agreed to buy 20 electric buses from Proterra at an estimated cost of $32 million. In May, San Francisco said it would begin buying only electric buses starting in 2025, with plans for an all-electric fleet by 2035.

The Workhorse Group, based in Cincinnati, has signed a letter of intent to sell 500 electric pickup trucks to Duke Energy, with delivery starting this summer. The $52,000 vehicles, made in the company's plant in Union City, Ind., "will do anything a conventional pickup will do, including towing and hauling," said Steve Burns, Workhorse's chief executive.

Duke Energy is committed to making 5 percent of its fleet nonpolluting, said Randy Wheeless, a company spokesman. It plans to distribute its electric pickups — which will have a gasoline backup engine to charge the batteries, a similar system to the one in the Chevrolet Volt passenger car — across the six states it serves.

Workhorse has just concluded a deal with UPS to sell the company 950 electric delivery vans, adding to the 50 that UPS has been testing. And a joint venture of Workhorse and the truck builder VT Hackney is one of five finalists in the United States Postal Service's bid to replace its fleet of mail delivery vehicles. The Postal Service is also evaluating gasoline and hybrid vehicles, but typical mail delivery route distances make an electric vehicle a viable proposition, Burns said.

The Chinese company building Antelope Valley's electric buses, BYD, is unknown to most Americans, but it is the world's largest manufacturer of electric vehicles — everything from forklifts to passenger cars and semitrucks.

The company is building the buses in Lancaster, and has also supplied electric buses to the University of California; Eugene, Ore.; and more. Low operating costs are a main selling point.

"Fuel and maintenance are one-third that of typical equivalent diesel vehicles," said George Miller, BYD America's senior sales manager for fleets.

The company has demonstrated its electric garbage trucks to City of Los Angeles sanitation officials and has a deal to sell 20 articulated buses to the operator of Los Angeles International Airport, Miller said.

While maintenance and energy costs are lower, initial purchase prices are not. BYD's garbage truck costs $300,000, while its 40-foot bus is about $150,000 more than its diesel equivalent.

BYD is counting on rebates to cut those costs. In California, that could amount to a price reduction between $50,000 and $75,000, thanks to money available from the state's Hybrid and Zero-Emission Truck and Bus Voucher Incentive Project.

The Antelope Valley Transit Authority is receiving $46 million in state and federal funding to help buy its 80 electric buses. While some of its buses run consecutive multiple routes as far as 558 miles a day, they can be charged wirelessly whenever a route is finished, adding 20 miles of range every 10 minutes. Engel said he expected the authority to save $1 million per year in fuel costs alone.

Other companies are running commercial electric vehicle demonstration projects and gearing up for production.

Tesla says it will make its Tesla Semi electric truck next year, with prices beginning at $150,000. And Thor Trucks, based in Los Angeles, also plans to offer an electric semitruck next year. It expects to charge $150,000 for a version with a 100-mile range, and $250,000 for a 300-mile version.

Thor is aiming for customers seeking short-haul heavy vehicles, such as trucks that might need to drive from a port to a warehouse. Those kinds of short-haul trips generate a great deal of air pollution when diesel trucks are used. But big batteries aren't the only solution.

Siemens, the German technology company, recently conducted a one-mile "eHighway" demonstration at the Long Beach and Los Angeles ports using trucks that drew power from overhead wires, much the way trains and streetcars are powered.

Overhead power eliminates the need for huge batteries and recharging time. When a truck must pass another vehicle, it disconnects from the wiring system, temporarily using a small battery before reconnecting to the wires.

"Over a 100,000-mile distance, we'd save $20,000 in fuel and maintenance," said Andreas Thon, a Siemens Mobility vice president in charge of the project.

The company is proposing to bring such a system to the entire length of the 710 Freeway, a major corridor jammed with trucks between the bustling Los Angeles ports to the city's rail yards and beyond. It is a stretch of highway that has been called the "diesel death zone."

Matt Miyasato, deputy executive officer of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the public agency in charge of controlling air pollution for that area, said there were "too many variables" for such an approach to be viable at the moment. But the idea is promising.

"If the Siemens test could be scaled up," he said, "we'd have a zero-emissions corridor."