NAIAS 2012: VIA Motors shows electric drive system for retrofit to trucks, vans, SUVs

Image: aei-VIA-lutz.jpg

Bob Lutz, now a VIA Motors Director, shown with the VTRUX, the Chevy Silverado pickup with the electric-drive system and lithium-ion battery pack added to the 4.3-L V6.

Adding a plug-in hybrid-electric drive system to a Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck raises the question, “Why?”

ViA Motors, exhibiting such a system at the North American International Auto Show in January, had a prominent member of its board of directors, Bob Lutz, answer the question. Lutz, former Vice Chairman of General Motors (among his many top jobs in the auto industry), is often called the “Father of the Chevy Volt.” And he said that in some respects a work truck makes the most sense for vehicle electrification.

The system shown installed on the Silverado by VIA Motors permits the converted truck, named the VTRUX, to drive up to 40 mi (64 km) on electricity, and unlike the Volt it can recharge the batteries, with the engine operating at its most efficient rpm.

Once the EV charge is depleted, the VTRUX operates as a hybrid, and with the addition of regenerative braking can provide a vehicle range of an additional 360 mi (579 km), for a total of about 400 mi (644 km).

If the vehicle is being used in a construction application, the 150-kW electric generator, with an optional onboard inverter, can deliver enough power to operate electric tools, such as an arc welder (including in continuous use). There even is enough to power an entire house if there’s an outage, the company claims. Lutz also suggested that caterers and other businesses that may require their own power supply for the types of off-premises jobs they do, could be potential customers. The VIA package includes onboard 120- and 240-Volt outlets and can deliver 15 kW at 30 A.

Pacific Electric and Gas Co. is testing two models, explained Greg Pruett, Senior Vice President for corporate affairs. The company, which provides off-peak electricity for 5.6 cents/kW·h, said it could save $9.5 million per year on gasoline (subtracting the price of the off-peak electricity) for its fleet of 3500 vehicles. The VIA packages will be installed by Roush Engineering, but VIA is looking for a plant, so if volume becomes sufficient it could do its own installations. However, the company’s operating strategy is not fixed, and a technology-licensing arrangement is an alternative.

The first-year price is $74,000, including the truck, which is an under-$30,000 component, and is based on a production run of about 2700 units in 2012, primarily to public utilities and government agencies. VIA hopes to sell 20,000 units in 2013, which it said would permit reduction to a $69,000 price tag. And if in 2014 volume reaches an anticipated 50,000 units, the price would drop to $64,000. However, there also will be a leasing arrangement available, at $700 month, which would be about $300 above the price of a standard truck, VIA said.

The 650-V system, as initially designed is an addition to General Motors pickups with the 4.3-L V6. It includes a liquid-cooled 24-kW·h lithium-ion battery pack from A123 Systems. The pack is located under the truck bed, within the frame rails for safety. The electronic controller is a smart device that can deliver up to 300 kW to each of two channels, so it can power both the electric drive motor and the generator. Because the user may wish to have a specific strategy for battery pack charging and electric power tool/equipment usage, the system electronics will have the capability for the operator to program it. The interface would be an IPad or similar tablet, according to Thierry Caussat, VIA Manager of Research and Development.

The drive motor, which is supplied by Remy International, weighs just 108 lb (49 kg), is rated at 300 kW peak output (240 kW continuous) and up to 300 lb·ft (407 N·m) torque, which would be enough for many towing operations.

The generator is VIA’s own design, and is rated for 140 kW continuous output, 200 kW peak.

Although the initial system is on a Silverado pickup, it was designed for general adaptability. VIA said that modified versions will next be offered for General Motors SUVs and large delivery vans, and also for light-duty trucks of other makers, including the Ford F-150 and Chrysler's Ram 1500.

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