Electric vehicles are having a rough time lately in the court of public opinion. Hurdles like battery technology, charging-station infrastructure, entry cost and reliability are making what is supposed to be a solution to our oil dependency look more and more like an unlikely option.
Sales of vehicles like the plug-in Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf and Toyota Prius make up a tiny fraction of new-vehicles sales, and they aren't expected to get much higher over the next 10 years. Yet both political parties are using the vehicles as a football to make some good and bad points about the viability of the current and future technology. Unless there is a practical, predictable and reliable way to use the technology, an electric powertrain may not be a worthwhile solution for people who use their cars simply as transportation.
But there may be another way to make inroads: work trucks that use electricity as a fuel and a tool.
Over the past several years, we've seen some electric powertrian strategies that seem to show promise in making a work truck much less expensive to operate over the life of the truck's duty cycle. Up to this point, most are all about extending existing range and lowering the overall cost of ownership, two key issues important to fleet managers.
Pacific Gas & Electric, a huge utility for Northern and Central California, recently took possession of two electric trucks made by Via Motors, with plans to buy 400 to 500 new trucks per year starting in 2013. These are basically GM half-ton trucks with small engines (usually the V-6) that provide power for the newly installed battery packs that run a compact and powerful Remy electric motor. These particular PG&E trucks will also be equipped with a 15-kilowatt gas-electric generator.
Via Motors' strategy is similar to (but not exactly like) the Chevy Volt in that it runs on electric power until it reaches a certain threshold, then the gasoline engine kicks in to power the electric motor that provides power to the wheels. Any excess power generated can be stored in the battery packs. In addition to supplying power to the wheels, the electric motor can also supply gobs of power for any electrical need. For a utility company like PG&E, that could mean supplying power to an entire neighborhood while working on the grid — saving all sorts of time, money and inconvenience to a large number of homes. These trucks could effectively become traveling power stations, ready to light up the darkness or, in the case of various hospital or emergency situations, save lives.
The point here is that in the initial stages of early adoption technology like this, it makes more sense to work out the bugs in more practical, large-volume fleets with punishing duty-cycle environments like the ones PG&E sees every day. That will likely provide more useful feedback compared with a small number of celebrity early adopters. To date, there have been mixed results with the new and expensive Fisker Karma and Tesla Roadster. Treating a powertrain as a useful tool as well as a power supply seems to be a more intelligent move than using it in a single-purpose high-visibility sports car.
We have no doubt there will be a place for electric powertrains, but it's not likely they'll be as popular as some politicians or transportation futurists might want — unless we're smart about it. That is, unless they can find a way to exploit the inherent advantages the technology could deliver over and above what we're getting from our current gasoline strategies. And from the looks of it, the possibilities are staring us in the face.
We've written about Protean Electric and explained how its in-wheel electric motors essentially eliminate the need for an underhood engine. The round, electrical generators sit inside each wheel hub and provide the specific power needs for each wheel. Four wheels means you could easily install four electric motors and use the engine bay as another storage trunk. Protean also promotes an aggressive regenerative-braking setup that could mean using a smaller battery to achieve the same extended range.
Even more interesting is what this particular strategy could mean for both large and small vehicles. Take a basic small car with an efficient four-cylinder engine and front-wheel drive. Drop in a small battery pack under the rear seats and an electric motor in each hub, and you have a super-efficient all-wheel-drive vehicle that could get double the fuel economy. Better yet, how about adding 40, 60 or 80 horsepower to your rear-wheel-drive V-6 Ford Mustang by putting two electric motors in the front wheels?
Protean tells us that controlling the brake-drum-sized motors uses some serious computer power, but once you have the right software programming, the rest falls into place. And from a cost of ownership point of view, especially in larger work trucks, the system can save owners up to 30 percent in fuel costs.
And if the practical advantages weren't enough with this type of space-saving strategy, Protean has teamed up with the high-performance European-car experts at Brabus to create the all-wheel-drive hybrid Mercedes-Benz E-Class that was shown at last year's Frankfurt Motor Show.
The political push behind electric powertrains has already started. California is attempting to legislate the number of electric vehicles on the road in the state by a given year (1.5 million by 2025), and the California Air Resource Board voted in January to require the big automakers in the state to sell 15 percent of their cars as zero-emissions or near-zero-emissions vehicles.
Regardless of which electric powertrain strategy takes the lead, it seems clear that the commercial industry may be better positioned to reap the benefits of this technology and provide valuable testing data for suppliers. It makes sense to us that the abusive duty cycles seen by vehicles in large public utility companies would be able to supply more feedback to help companies improve software and hardware. Although it's likely we'll continue to see the occasional plug-in electric vehicle in various commuting and dense-city situations, it seems more likely we'll see more commercial fleets adopt this interesting technology in the name of overall cost-of-ownership savings and more practical power grid needs.
The cost of these trucks will be a huge issue, especially in these early stages. For now, Via Motors' half-ton trucks cost $79,000 for the entire truck (saving as much as $3,000 per year in fuel, depending on duty cycle), while other extended-range companies like Alt-e offer a range of solutions, costing from $10,000 to $30,000 depending on your needs. Still, other companies like Protean are more interested in working directly with manufacturers, and we're more likely to see its technology as part of a new special package offered by truck makers such as International, Mercedes-Benz or possibly Nissan. This will be interesting to watch, especially if fuel prices don't become more reasonable.