Driven: Protean Ford F-150 All-Electric Pickup Truck

Driven: Protean Ford F-150 All-Electric Pickup Truck
Words and Photos by Ben Wojdyla for PickupTrucks.com

It might not seem obvious, but pickup trucks are the ideal candidates for electric drive systems. Electric motors deliver peak torque at zero rpm to get big loads moving. There’s plenty of room to store massive batteries and heavy-duty components can handle their extra weight.

It’s why Protean Electric – formerly known as PML Flightlink – converted a 2009 Ford F-150 to all-electric drive for the 2008 SEMA show. The unique part: Unlike normal EVs, Protean’s F-150 has in-wheel electric motors, four of 'em, and boy are they powerful. How do we know? Because after three years, we finally got behind the wheel of this alt-powered truck.

Let's back up a moment, though. In-wheel electric motors on trucks aren't a new idea. In fact, one of the first hybrid vehicles was a modified truck built in 1900 by Ferdinand Porsche, and it used so-called pancake motors in the wheels. The reason then is the same as the reason now — mechanical simplicity and packaging advantages. Putting electric motors in the wheels makes sense on a basic level; it puts the power-generating elements where power is needed and frees up space for passengers and cargo.

Rear-underbody-1-560
Looking from the rear forward. Note the hollow beam rear axle shackled to conventional leaf springs and lack of a rear differential. Gear reduction and wheel speed is controlled inside each wheel motor. Battery packs and power cables (orange) are also shown.

Until recently, the biggest reason against using in-wheel motors was that they create too much unsprung weight. Unsprung weight is generally considered the enemy of handling performance. The more weight hanging off the end of the suspension, the harder it is to control the motion of the wheel and by extension, the performance of the vehicle. Generally, more power from an electric motor requires more windings, bigger permanent magnets and added weight.

Protean has taken a different approach that not only increases power, it improves reliability, control and, most importantly, reduces weight.

Protean created an in-wheel electric motor unit that's essentially eight motors in one package. Inside the motor, its rotor looks conventional, with segmented permanent magnets on the outside. The stator, however, is new. Arranged in a circle are eight identical inverter motor controllers, each capable of switching on and off independently and driving the motor at low power individually. Alone, they offer minimum power use, but all together, they switch on and off to provide maximum power and torque.

Front-wheel-1-560
Closeup look at the right front wheel. Protean's in-wheel electric motor has minimal impact on the independent front suspension, knuckles and tie rods.  

This system provides several important benefits, including easy repair and redundancy. But most important is the weight reduction the design allows. Each motor tips the scales around 68 pounds, more than a brake and half-shaft system, but still manageable from a vehicle tuning and dynamics perspective.

Protean has designed its motors as a modular bolt-on system. The motors are designed to use the factory bearing systems, so installation means removing the factory brake system, swapping the bearing onto the integrated mechanical brake/motor unit and bolting it back into place on the axle.

A live axle like the solid rear axle a stock F-150 uses isn't necessary. To prove the point, Protean chucked the factory Ford rear axle in favor of a hollow beam axle, saving considerable weight in the process. They also ditched the rear differential because wheel speed and gear reduction is managed in each of the wheel motors.

Drive-1-560

Protean’s demonstrator uses a slick inboard braking system much like an old Jaguar E-Type; however, the system can provide regenerative braking. Federal mandates require a mechanical backup system, so traditional hydraulic braking has been integrated into the latest motor design.

How does such a radically different powertrain layout drive in a half-ton truck? A lot like today’s truck. As you might expect from an EV, power comes on strong from the start, and as you reach higher speed, the power output decreases. These aren’t weak motors. Each of the four can generate peak twist of 608 pounds-feet of torque, and continuous output is just as impressive at 368 pounds-feet. Remember, that's for each motor.

Beastly as the motors might be, there’s still a major challenge to overcome: the battery, something Protean makes no bones about. Protean isn’t in the battery business, so the 40-kilowatt-hour battery installed under the bed isn't theirs, just the battery du jour. It's also the truck's weak point right now. Each motor can operate at 84 kwh peak power, about 112 hp, for a grand total of 448 hp. Unfortunately the battery can only output a maximum of 138 kW, or about 185 horsepower. So better battery means bigger power, just like better fuel pump means more fuel, means the potential for more power. Remember, though, that we're talking about a demonstration machine built three years ago. Battery technology has advanced a lot in that time, and so can performance.

Interior-1-560
The interior has been customized with digital gauges and three push-button controls (next to cupholders) for drive, neutral and reverse modes. The large red button is a kill switch, just in case.

But what about the handling? Making the case that in-wheel motors can be a viable drive system is tough, especially when pitching to a generation of chassis engineers taught that unsprung weight is the worst thing in the world. So Protean did something risky. It didn't tune the suspension at all after the conversion. To compensate for the removal of the drive line, the company placed the hefty battery pack to maintain proper weight distribution and ride height, and that's all it did. The truck still rides on the factory springs and dampers front and rear. It's a tricky way to put the product to the ultimate test. With no suspension tuning working to Protean’s advantage, how does the truck perform compared with the stock setup?

We're not going to gloss over the rougher ride, but considering the circumstances, we're open to believe Protean's view that previous unsprung weight concerns can be overcome. There is a noticeable increase in the amount of vibration translated to the driver compared with a stock truck. Some can be attributed to the 18-inch wheels and lower-profile tires, but in fairness, some comes from the added heft of the motors. It's not disconcerting, though, not even close. It's entirely within reason that with appropriate springs and dampers, you'd never know you were driving something other than a stock F-150, well, aside from the freaky quietness of the vehicle.

Drive-2-560
Protean's in-wheel electric drive system had no problem moving the F-150 up and over a steep test grade.

In a corner and at speed, it feels similar to a conventional pickup. Such a statement may seem generic, but it belies the possibilities of the system. The highest praise an EV or hybrid can ever get is, “It feels just like a normal vehicle.” That is oddly the goal. Do something revolutionary and make the difference imperceptible. In that measure, Protean has succeeded with this demo vehicle.

What are the odds of this truck, or something like it, making it to production, considering the long odds facing upstart EV companies and their seemingly frequent burnout rate? Protean says it’s watertight financially, claiming it’s nearing its first contract to supply vehicles and has plenty of investor capital available. It expects to make an announcement in the near future of a U.S. production facility for its hardware.

The F-150 demonstrator serves as a “most extreme case” of what Protean can deliver. The company plans to offer hybrid and all-electric vehicle solutions. Protean’s in-wheel system can operate as a through-the-road hybrid, a synchronous axle hybrid, all-electric as is the case with the F-150, or as selectively internal combustion and EV operation. Protean is currently a full generation ahead of the motors installed on this truck, with another generation pending release this summer. The numbers have changed slightly to improve continuous output and overall efficiency, with peak torque down to 578 pounds-feet and 355 pounds-feet continuous with continuous output up to 80 hp rather than 60 hp.

After all this talk of kilowatts and inverter motor controllers and peak versus continuous output, the takeaway is this: Don't fear the future. As much as we all love big, powerful, dinosaur-fueled internal combustion engine-powered pickups, there's room enough for electric trucks, too, or even hybrids. If you think the growl of an IC engine is mandatory for the truck experience, just imagine what having 2,300 pounds-feet of torque on tap might do for your opinions.

Beauty-1-560

Comments

I log about 20 miles a day on the sand. I challenge any manufacturer for an electric or hybrid pickup truck to allow me to test it in my environment.

One statement the authour does not seem to get the reader to notice is that it is far far more effective in four wheeling to have the source of your power closer to where it's being used.Ask any bulldozer driver or ship/locomotive operator that and they'll agree.You may have less torque coming out of the drive motors ccompared to what you would get out of a comparable sized engine but what torque ya have is being used a lot more effectively. I am glad there's a company out there thats finally realizing this,a whole heck of a lot of torque(and hence energy)wastes away in turnng the gears of a transfer case, a cam and crankshaft,and then a transmission tand then finally down to a rear(and up to a front)differential,and then finally to the wheels.All thats gone,good to see!I'd buy one

jp,it might shock you that this machine may do a better job than the 4wd you own now,with this the drive motors are in the wheels,your power source is where its needed most..exactly we need to know its off road performance

One Hell of a badass truck

That was a cheap shot at the superbowl but chevy cant survive the appocolipse without gas.

This vehicle (Protean Electric F-150) and the newer models are great implementations of sub-optimal designs. All-electric is far to range-limited, and as several people have noted they don't mention the range but its probably in the 40city-80hwy mile area. With a diesel genset you extent your range substantially (or infinitely) but add a lot to the cost.

A few comments noted the torque output as less than a V6 gas engine. This is true at certain speeds but remember that a IC engine makes 0 torque at 0 RPM where the electric makes 100% torque at 0 RPM. Even in 4WD low a great final ratio is 50 to 1 meaning that your torque peak (around 2500RPM) is driving you at roughly 50 wheel RPM or 10ft/sec. at any lower speed you lose torque in the torque converter or clutch matching engine speed to wheel speed.

Still the point that it won't climb really steep hills in valid. With 2300 ft-lbs wheel torque in a 5500 lb vehicle with 33 inch tires the break-even angle is about 18 degrees (a 33% grade).

I love when people have strong opinions about something
but really hate when the opinion is so wrong yet they stick to it as if their life depended on it.

Yes, electric power is not free!
Yes, we still rely on less then totally clean sources of electric power.

BUT !!!!!

except for rare exception electricity is much easier and safer and more environmentally friendlier to transport, and the infrastructure is already exists.

the technology exists and constantly improving and changing on how we generate electricity.

even today we have better and ecologically cleaner ways to generate electrical power rather then coal powered plants
(nuclear power is still better and cleaner for that).
if we can agree on things we can add wind and solar technology to the mix. nothing we do will be totally 100% environmentally safe, but we can still stride to make it as close to 100% as we can.

I think if you think about it, a centralized manufacturing plant
for batteries , as well as electricity plant is much more easier to control and manage the environmental impact than an individual car makes.
power plant is more efficient than an individual ICE because it is run a close to peak efficiency all the time compared to how we drive our cars.
also when Power plant burn fuel to produce energy it never just burn fuel and not use the energy produced when as we drive we do so when car is simply sitting in traffic idle.

so what have a greater environmental impact a 1 million cars idle in traffic / parking burning much needed resource for nothing OR a plant burning the resource and generating power?

what is more environmentally sound : car that does not require oil change at all, has less toxic fluids in it for operational needs (no motor oil, no transmission oil, no antifreeze), and uses the power created with more efficient means and with less waist (power is not used when car is not in motion as in traffic / parked)

or what we have now?

I like the electric truck concept. But would it benefit Ford to build a electric-gas vehicle? The thing about batteries is when the cold weather drains the battery. Wouldn't be efficient to have a gallon of gass per vehivle to assist and enhance the electric motor?
I know we are moving toward no-fossil fuel, but Chevy have a good vehicle (Chevy Volt), but it is too expensive and sales are falling due to price. A truck with someof the same concepts
(more electric-less gas) would be beneficial to all to conserve energy.

Just a thought from a Ford Fan For Life! :-)

Sign me up. I'll sell my truck tomorrow to buy one of these.$3.99 at the pump I'm done.

I would love to have a electric and gas HD f250 crewcab and get around mid 30's MPG. Use the gas engine when needed

I am going to order 2013 F250 lariet crewcab. Ford claims 18.4 MPG and is much better than my F350 lariet crewcab at 8-10MPG. If every ford pick up had gas and electric and could get 35 MPG, Less gas used would mean the price would come down.
I think one reason gas prices are going up is because china went from riding bikes to cars in like 20 years causing a big demand for gas in china.
On the otherhand, this president is causing Americans to go cars back to bikes.
I think the latest the Prez is doing buying $40 billion mortage securities a month to bring unemployment down is a bunch of bull. So where does the money come from?? If you want to stimulate the economy, send out to every American a check for $5K

Most electric motors operate through interacting magnetic fields and current-carrying conductors to generate force, although electrostatic motors use electrostatic forces. The reverse process, producing electrical energy from mechanical energy, is done by generators such as an alternator or a dynamo. Many types of electric motors can be run as generators and vice versa.

Where can I buy mine?

Why can't a simple 5 HP lawn mower motor be used along with an alternator to keep the battery charged until someone could develop a battery that will hold a charge that will last up to 7 days of continous use.

Would love to get one of these to pull my RV trailer with. just think putting down the road with 2wd and enough power to pull with ease and then when you start up hill kick in 4wd and power right up the hill. and 4wd regen braking down the grades. can't wait to have one attached to my rv trailer.

Steel vs. sticks
paper vs. stone
wheels vs. drag poles
cars vs. horse&buggies
tractor vs. the mule
phones vs. pony express
computers vs. typewriters
all abundant renewable energy vs. depleting fossil fuel

Hmmmm, wonder who will WIN?

Oh, by the way.
Installed a 50 kW solar array on my land, getting paid big time
by utilities each month, buying EV this year, charging station to charge each night.
Installing hydrolysis system soon to make H2 gas for burning in my H2 generator or a fuel cell to completely be self-reliant.
Have solar on over 100 sites in my area and my clients have gotten rid of their monthly electric expenses.
Don't believe the BS, fear, hesistancy, or the poo poo on "green technology" from naysayers of renewable energy. Their just SCARED and very mis-informed. God Love em.

In all ICE vehicles now ,there is a generator/alternater turned by belts to keep the battery charged. If the engine,fuel tank,radiator,driveshaft,transmission,etc are not in the EV, why not use the empty space under the hood to funnel the energy of the wind entering the grill to turn a fairly large wind generator that charges the battery while driving? Seems technologically feasible to me but I'm just an oil and gas driller.

This looks cool. I used to be a big oil/gas supporter then my water well went bad the day after encanas seismic blasted in my area. YouTube search farmers with a voice. Now I'm seeing that there are meny places the water has become untouchable and the bad air from flaring well its embarrassing. And an industry that has grown, and believe they are larger then God. So the peaple and environment have become an exceptable expense. Competition will be a welcome part of life.

I totally agree with the electric vehicles .
People may as well get use to it because
this is and well be the future . People can
get in contact with their government reps
and get then also involved because this old
earth can't take much more of the crap . The
earth is polluted , the forest is near ruined ,
The air we breathe is polluted . The grounds
for food is polluted or near all ruined because
of greed and corruption of more wanting more .
Now we in Canada are having problems because
of fracking . The oil is seeping out into the soil
where they are using this to extract more oil for
the greed of those at the top . I say ENOUGH IS ENOUGH
Put those in office that will do something for the people
for a change .

@Ches

Well said.

Please let me know when you plan to park your fossil fuel powered cars and start heating your house with sunlight.

I thought so!

In the meantime stop disparaging others who might disagree with you. There are a lot people in business and public service who probably have an edge on you in the smarts department.

Will you please consider showing a little respect before spouting off a lot of BS that you don't even understand?

Where can I get one of these electric pickups I live near Salt Lake City and I want on with an extended cab. My email is the best way to contact me. dwight60 and I am at gmail dot com

When will we see it on the road?

I like the new update; I mean we have been using Henry Ford's invention that was invented or innovated 100+ years ago. Thats like using a 100+ year old phone, who does that? This will also decrease the pollution caused by gasoline vehicles each year, making the Earth and Humans more healthy. This is the next inovation for the automobile.

Lithium is not rare. Lithium is an essential component of Life on Earth. Nothing can live without Lithium, so it is ubiquitous. Lithium is literally everywhere. It takes far less Lithium to fill a battery pack than it takes to fill catalytic converters with Platinum, which is a precious metal.

It doesn't matter if electricity through the national grid 'skyrockets' because you can make your own electricity at home using windmill, solar, geothermal, or watermill systems. You can't make your own gasoline, diesel, CNG, or Hydrogen at home, without a much higher expense.

Using coal to produce electricity has been cheap, but that has been at the expense of the environment. That's why no one is building new coal powerplants, because it costs too much to make them compliant on emissions. No one is retrofitting coal powerplants either. They just bring Natural Gas (Methane) Turbine Generators online instead, because they cost less, burn cleaner, and are more efficient. As coal plants go out of service over the next decade, the entire grid becomes cleaner, and renewable sources of electric energy are growing.

the wiring needs anti chaf wrapping like hydraulic lines on equipment

Aluminum/ Foam graphite batteries are a breath away. add a methanol small robust engine with a V belt driven generator plus self driving technology - you have a huge stepping stone.

Cal me I want o do this to my f160310 9950416



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