Electric cars, even plug-in hybrids, may not be a market success, but VIA Motors believes it has a cost-effective retrofit line of extended-range commercial vehicles. It includes retrofit of pickups based on the Chevrolet Silverado with a 4.3-L V6 and General Motors vans with a 4.8-L V8, using a lithium-ion battery pack rated at 21.4 kW·h and an electric-drive traction motor. The company’s spokesman, also a director, is former GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz. He is regarded as the prime mover behind the Chevy Volt during his GM tenure, and the VIA trucks use a conceptually similar powertrain, i.e. a gasoline engine as a range extender, charging the battery pack.
Alan Periton, a former GM executive who is VIA President, announced start of production at a Los Angeles Auto Show press conference. He said that VIA's forthcoming 4WD pickup, assuming a typical up-to-eight-year turnover, will recover full cost of retrofit electrification (nearly $40,000) based on 15,000-20,000 mi/year (24,000-32,000 km/year) and turn a purchase cost “profit” of $20,000 or more.
Electrified trucks vs. small cars
Lutz said the pickup and van were actually more suitable for electrification because of their relatively low gas mileage, vs. small cars that get high fuel economy on gasoline alone. “These trucks get as little as 11-12 mpg,” he said, and an electrified version would get the equivalent of 100 mpg.
The business case for commercial vehicle electrification will be tested by UPS, using developmental vehicles, and if successful, UPS would add them to its fleet, Periton told AEI. UPS is noted for its “down to the mil” cost-monitoring of its van delivery fleet.
The van has just gone into production at VIA’s plant in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, a free-trade zone that is near a GM plant that will supply it with vehicles for conversion. Silverado-based pickups will follow. The plant has a potential production capacity of 20,000 units/year, Periton said.
The VIA system replaces the transmission with a traction motor rated at 415 N·m peak torque (210 N·m continuous), and an electronic control system. The battery pack is rated for 40 mi (64 km) in pickups, 35 mi (56 km) for the van. The engine operates only when necessary to recharge the batteries through a generator rated at 150 kW peak (100 kW continuous), so it provides “range extension” up to about 400 mi (640 km). In addition, the pickup can be ordered with a hard tonneau cover dotted with high-efficiency solar cells, which on a sunny day (with the truck parked or running) can add up to 10 mi (16 km) to the 40 mi initial electric range, VIA claims.
The unused transmissions will be sold through the aftermarket, although VIA eventually expects volume to rise to sufficient levels to enable GM to supply vehicles without them.
The present assembly line has eight stations, which include de-contenting (removal of the transmission and related parts). Finally a vehicle goes to a software station and then to a final check.
Periton emphasized that the vehicles must demonstrate cost-effectiveness because the initial market will be fleet. “Fleets operate to make money, so they won’t buy for sustainability. They won’t pay a penalty to be green,” he said.
Initial market for fleet leases
The initial marketing to fleets will be leases, he said. The leasing prices for electrification, Periton asserted, will be “several hundred dollars a month,” and the fleets will be able to make immediate assessments of the savings vs. comparative gasoline expenses.
Among the best prospects for early leases, Periton said, will be electric utility fleets because they have access to a recharging network for electricity at wholesale cost.
One of the fleet-friendly features is integration of an iPad into the control stack. It incorporates hybrid controls, and with GPS, it permits enhanced fleet management, including dispatch control.
The pickup is based on the new Silverado platform, and Periton said VIA decided to wait for it, rather than rush to production and later change over.
The VIA product line consists of the 4WD pickup (2WD available), the van, and even a GM SUV (which is equipped with the 5.3-L V8) in a limo version.
VIA plans to start retail sales later in 2014. One of its selling points for pickup and van buyers is a panel with 120-V/240-V outlets, and an electrical output up to 15 kW at 30 amps continuous power for tools, arc welders, etc.