Passenger vehicles most often come to mind when the EV topic arises, but all-electric light- and medium-duty fleet vehicles such as delivery trucks, vans, and shuttle buses may present the ideal outlet for the technology in the near to midterm. These vehicles run mostly fixed routes that maximize vehicle utilization rates and can recharge at central facilities at off-peak times (click “Commercial fleets key to heavy BEV adoption” to read more).
ALTe Powertrain Technologies has developed a modular range-extended electric powertrain (REEP) system that specifically targets those markets for retrofit application—and eventually maybe as an original-equipment option. The company projects an 80 to 200% improvement in fuel economy with a REEP installation, with no loss in cargo capacity, increased torque, and power and towing capability comparable to a factory V8 engine.
Founded in 2008, the Auburn Hills, MI-based start-up has developed the technology over the past few years and will be ready to begin fleet conversions in 2012. ALTe currently employs about 40 people, of which 80% are engineers. It plans to reach 70 employees by the end of the year and over 180 employees by next summer, as conversions ramp up.
“We’re in a sense inspired by the Chevy Volt powertrain solution and also locomotive engines from back in the day when they had basically a big engine turning an electric generator that produced the electricity to drive the wheels,” John Thomas, CEO and co-founder of ALTe, explained to SAE Magazines. “So really the technology has been out there 100 years, but it’s been waiting for the convergence of all the right elements to come together—mainly affordable, reliable, high-voltage power electronics.”
The other key element to making this system possible was the advancement of lithium-ion batteries. “We had to wait for enough power density so that you could put enough batteries on board without penalizing the weight of the vehicle so much that you took away all payload carrying capacity,” he said.
According to Thomas, only about 13% of the potential energy in a gallon of gasoline makes it drive the tires with an average internal-combustion engine; electric propulsion systems are on the order of 94% efficient. “The efficiency losses through a normal engine, transmission, and driveline are surprisingly high,” he said.
ALTe replaces a vehicle’s factory engine with one that has been optimized, with new camshafts, pistons, piston rings, and emissions management system. These changes alone can increase an engine’s efficiency to about 25%, Thomas said: “We go to a 2.0-L optimized engine that is made for our genset; that’s all we need. And we’re finding that we can even go to less than 1.0-L engines in some fleet applications.”
Two electric motors, which are supplied by Remy, are mounted to the front of the existing factory transmission. “A lot of people in the EV and hybrid space throw out the old transmission and come up with a new one-gear or two-speed transmission,” Thomas shared. “We do make modifications to it; we have an external pump and we use two to three of the gears within the normal transmission to drive the tires…There is a point when you want a different gear, and we maintain that capability.”
It takes around 14 man-hours to complete a conversion. The system is projected to provide an initial 30 mi (48 km) of all-electric driving, followed by an estimated 275 mi (443 km) in a charge-sustained mode, before needing to be recharged or refueled.
For a shuttle bus application, ALTe almost doubled the fuel economy of the stock 5.4-L V8, increasing it to 11.7 mpg.
The start-up is focusing on light- to medium-duty fleet vehicles for a reason: heavier vehicles require more batteries and a larger engine to create the electricity. “Electric miles purchased in the form of batteries is the most expensive way to get electric miles,” Thomas said. “There is a point when it doesn’t make economic sense.” Hydraulic hybrid systems make more sense for heavy vehicles, he added.
A conversion system for a light-duty truck costs under $30,000 installed. “We take out the entire old powertrain and replace everything: fuel tank, battery, engine, exhaust. It extends the useful life of the vehicle several years, so now instead of a fleet buyer having to purchase a brand new vehicle with a green powertrain, we’re able to keep them in their old vehicle a few more years for a fraction of the cost,” he said.
The conversion comes with a five-year, 75,000-mi (120,700-km) warranty.
The payback time depends on each individual customer’s case, with the primary variables being the cost of gasoline and the number of miles driven annually. Some customers will realize a payback in less than one year, but most will average between 2-3 years at $3.75/gal gasoline, according to Thomas.
Multiple distribution channels will be offered for the REEP system, because as the company discovered, “it’s a very fragmented market,” Thomas said. ALTe has partnered with Manheim to do conversions at any of their 75 facilities around the U.S., or it can sell the kits to larger fleet owners that have their own garages and prefer to install the system themselves (once they have been approved, trained, and certified by ALTe).
Other markets could include custom car builders for limousines or other stretch vehicles, as well as military and government depots. For those organizations wanting to perform the retrofit at their own facility, such as military outlets that must ensure a secure environment, ALTe provides training to their employees through its ALTe University.
In addition to retrofits, the company is talking to several OEM partners about the possibility of employing the technology as original equipment. According to Thomas, ALTe received a “boost to our credibility” when former Chrysler executives Tom LaSorda and Steven Landry became board members in December 2009.
The company has formed a Customer Advisory Board that includes about 15 of the largest fleets in North America, including Frito Lay, PG&E, Cox Communication, DirecTV, Service Master, Waste Management, Duke Energy, and Club Assist among other companies. ALTe also has initiated pilot projects with several large fleets where one of their vehicles will be retrofit with the REEP system and the fleet will provide an evaluation and feedback to ALTe.
The company has signed long-term supply agreements with several major suppliers (e.g., Remy for electric motors) with an announcement expected by mid-September on a battery supplier.
Purchase orders will begin to be accepted at the end of 2011, with production launch targeted for August 2012.
“We’re probably going to have about 20 strategic relationships set up with companies who can really produce and deliver for the quantities we need” when production starts next year, Thomas said. The company plans to retrofit several hundred fleet vehicles in the first year. It expects this number to increase to almost 50,000 units by 2015, reflecting the strong interest being expressed by major fleets and the overall size of its target market (over 10 million pickup trucks, vans, and SUVs registered to corporate and government fleets in the U.S., according to ALTe).
While ALTe is focusing on on-road vehicles to begin with, it has not ruled out application of its REEP system in agricultural or other off-highway equipment, according to Thomas. “Our powertrain can be applied to any and all wheeled vehicles, and we’re looking at it.”