EAST WENATCHEE — Northern Fruit is going high-tech in its quest to stay competitive in the global fruit market.
The East Wenatchee-based grower, packer and exporter of apples and cherries is turning to electric vehicles, some of which will drive themselves, company President Doug Pauly told members of the state Transportation Commission on Wednesday, part of a two-day virtual meeting focused on transportation issues and projects in the Wenatchee Valley.
Northern Fruit has reserved five of Tesla’s cybertrucks when production begins later this year at the new Tesla Gigafactory in Austin, Texas. The vehicles are expected to arrive in 2022. Pauly said one electric semitruck also is on order, from the same factory, and he anticipates adding more electric vehicles to the fleet.
“We have vehicles every day in use with our company — passenger vehicles, pickup trucks, passenger vans, semi trucks, four-wheelers and forklifts,” he said. “The only one so far to make a transition to EVs is forklifts. Everything else is pretty much like it was when the company was founded in 1928. We have a steering wheel, a gas pedal and a driver behind it to operate the vehicle. I believe that’s about to change.”
A diesel truck costs about $1.70 per mile to operate, with 75 cents of that in labor and 35 cents in fuel.
“If we combine EV semis and autonomous driving software, that cuts our transportation costs in half,” Pauly said. “Any time someone says an emerging technology can substantially reduce transportation costs, that’s exciting. It’s even better if the new technology can improve employee safety, health and the company’s overall work environment.”
The electric vehicles have 20 moving parts rather than 200 in an internal combustion engine, making it less expensive to maintain, he said. A diesel truck with fully loaded trailer will go 0 to 60 in 40 seconds, maybe more. In an electric truck, it’s 20 seconds — without diesel fumes or the noise level of 80-plus decibels.
The average orchard/packing warehouse labor cost in Washington state is $20+ per hour. In China, which produces 50 million tons of fresh apples to 5 million in the U.S., labor costs are about $20 a day.
Pauly said he is not an expert on electric vehicles — although he has four years of experience as a Tesla investor — but with 30 years of experience on the leadership team at Northern Fruit, he knows the tree fruit industry and the need to stay competitive on a global scale.
He compares the coming change to when Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone in 2007.
“We thought (the iPhone) would be a step improvement. It turned out to be an inflection point for the telecommunications industry and the way everyone communicated personally and in business. I believe EVs and autonomous vehicles will do the same thing in transportation,” he said.
In addition to investing in electric vehicles, Northern Fruit is building a “next generation” packing facility in Baker Flats, which is in the planning and permitting process in Douglas County.
“As part of that we have to rethink what our transportation system operations will look like in 10 years,” he said. “We think a good percentage of our employees, who currently drive their private vehicles to work, will be arriving in shared autonomous vans.”
It could be a van fleet that’s owned by Northern Fruit or Link Transit or some private company, he said. Autonomous forklifts, already operating in European facilities, also are likely in Northern Fruit’s new facility, which is being designed with electric-vehicle use in mind — including charging stations to re-energize the company’s fleet at night.
Trucks delivering fruit now unload onto a loading dock outside, unable to come inside because of the internal combustion engine fumes. Electric vehicles don’t have that barrier.
“So we’re rethinking the doors, the hallways and transportation plans,” he said.
Northern Fruit’s electrification extends beyond the packing plant to the orchards.
“Early this year, we had a visit from the CEO of Blue White Robotics of Israel that is developing autonomous tractors. They can retrofit a John Deere tractor to spray, mow or fertilize our orchard with no one driving the tractor. It’s all done autonomously,” he said.
Pauly’s presentation to the state commission, which has influence on statewide policy and funding decisions, was one of several that focused on alternative energy transportation-related projects in the Wenatchee Valley. The seven-member board also heard about Douglas County PUD’s renewable hydrogen production facility pilot project and Link Transit’s electric buses and fast charging stations.
Wenatchee and East Wenatchee mayors and members of the Chelan-Douglas Transportation Council also presented an overview of transportation issues and projects, including the region’s Apple Capital Loop project, which includes construction of Confluence Parkway running parallel to North Wenatchee Avenue, and a second bridge across the Wenatchee River to Olds Station. To see the presentations, go to tvw.org.
Jeff Wilkens, executive director of the Chelan-Douglas Transportation Council, said normally the meeting would have been in person, an opportunity that comes around every six to eight years.
“It’s always worthwhile when given the opportunity to inform them that a) we’re here and b) we have needs that merit consideration in statewide budgeting decisions that have been vetted through a solid planning process,” he said. “I also generally like to help policy makers from other parts of the state understand that this area isn’t rural in the same way they might consider other Eastern Washington communities that aren’t Yakima, Spokane or Tri Cities, that we also have transportation challenges that are urban in character and the scale of funding they require.”