Bright Automotive, a year-and-a-half-old start-up company based in Anderson, IN, recently introduced a prototype plug-in hybrid van for commercial fleet use that is expected to travel 50 mi (80 km) on 0.5 gal (1.9 L) of gasoline. Stoked on government loans, the start-up projects yearly sales of 50,000 IDEA light commercial trucks by 2013.
The PHEV (plug-in hybrid electric vehicle) van was on display at the 24th International Battery, Hybrid, and Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle Symposium and Exposition (EVS) in Stavanger, Norway. The fuel-sipping delivery and utility vehicle is the result of a collaborative design process whereby engineers, designers, technical and product specialists, business managers, and potential user groups spent a week in focused discussions and negotiations to help optimize the vehicle to best meet mission-critical requirements.
The “functional concept vehicle” is centered on a parallel, road-coupled (or “through-the-road”) hybrid-electric propulsion system chosen to minimize complexity and cost as well as to provide all-wheel drive for rough driving conditions and improved safety, said John Waters, Bright Auto’s Chief Executive Officer. He is a veteran of the teams that developed the battery systems that powered General Motors’ pioneering EV-1 electric car and Segway’s innovative, two-wheel Personal Transporter. The aerodynamic exterior is said to cover a lightweight but robust structure of aluminum and composites.
The privately funded venture is a spin-off from the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), a nonprofit think-tank and consultancy in Boulder, CO, that is headed by the futurist/environmentalist Amory Lovins. Bright Auto is seeking a $450-million government loan to build the production facilities needed to manufacture 50,000 of its IDEA light trucks annually starting in 2012.
The U.S. Congress has approved $25 billion in U.S. Department of Energy loan credits to help auto companies construct or retool plants to build fuel-efficient, high-tech cars. The Indiana firm joins Smith Electric Vehicles, Azure Dynamics, and, soon, Nissan and Ford by addressing the still-evolving market for electric or hybrid vehicles for commercial fleet use, a market of some 500,000 vehicles a year, which accounts for 3% of total industry sales.
In 2006, RMI studied the design of a PHEV to replace the current U.S. Postal Service carrier-route vehicle, recalled Waters, who then led the Institute’s automotive practice. “The Postal Service has 162,000 neighborhood delivery vehicles driving around that get 10 miles per gallon (mpg),” he noted. “A penny rise in fuel costs is an $8-million hit to their annual budget.”
The goal, he continued, was to build an (effective) 100-mpg route van that travels from 50 to 70 mi (80 to 113 km) a day for customers such as Coca Cola, UPS, PG&E, Frito-Lay North America, Duke Energy, and Cox Communications. These trucks generally carry up to 2000 lb (910 kg) or 180 ft³ (5100 L) of cargo.
“But for this to work, you need to provide an economic solution that is pulled by the market, not pushed by policy or greenwashing,” Waters explained. “Fleet operators buy off the numbers on a spreadsheet, looking analytically at the total cost of ownership.” Companies, they concluded, could save $3000 a year apiece if they switched from trucks that get 8 to 12 mpg to purpose-built PHEVs that are four or five times more fuel efficient.
This market opportunity led to the formation of a consortium of interested parties including Alcoa, Google.org, Johnson Controls, and The Turner Foundation that researched and analyzed the potential market for a light truck-size PHEV concept amenable to rapid, large-scale implementation. The engineers, he said, took lessons from their experience with the EV-1 and RMI’s early-1990s Hypercar study for an ultralightweight, carbon-fiber composite PHEV that never reached production.
The effort culminated in a major design collaboration at IDEO Lab in Palo Alto in 2008: “Everyone was locked up for a week during which the teams engaged in intense, iterative—almost Wall Street-like—trading of resources and system specs,” resulting in a fundamental design and even a business plan that would become the basis of Bright Auto, Waters reported. “I remember negotiating hard for as little as 4 ounces of vehicle mass,” he laughed.
Commercial vehicles of this class traditionally average about 5380 lb (2440 kg), but the design team targeted a total mass of 2750 lb (1250 kg)—less than that of a Toyota Prius. Early in the development process, Waters said, it was determined that aggressive mass reduction would be possible by using a predominantly aluminum chassis structure with composite parts “where it makes sense.”
For example, a large, woven carbon-fiber composite component serves as the bulkhead behind the seat. “It turns out that customers usually spend $1000 to install 500 to 600 lb of bulkhead materials after their purchase,” he noted, the realization of which was one of the “breakthroughs” of the workshop at IDEO. “We integrated into the design a lighter-weight carbon composite structure that should also improve rollover and side-impact safety.”
The company enlisted an experienced aerodynamics engineering firm to fine-tune the exterior to achieve the aggressive drag coefficient goal of 0.313. The resulting design in addition features 30% less overall drag area compared to the segment average.
“Our analysis said that the battery was the main cost driver, so we opted for a road-coupled hybrid that minimizes battery size,” Waters continued. Unlike the Toyota Prius-type hybrid, which features a mechanical link between the internal combustion drivetrain and the electric one, or the purely electrical connection of General Motors’ future Volt, in the IDEA “nothing ties them together but the road,” he pointed out. Control of the AWD system’s power is handled by software in the vehicle management system, which, though, “impressive and fast, still needs to be optimized to production standard.”
The powertrain scheme, which entails a smaller, cheaper electric motor and no mechanical power splitter, has been demonstrated in the past on vehicles such as the Dodge Durango Hybrid pickup concept and the new hybrid diesel designs from Peugeot and Citroën.
The simple parallel hybrid system needs only common engine and transmission components and an electric rear axle, resulting in lower engineering development costs than for highly integrated hybrid systems. It also makes effective use of the costly battery pack, while employing the internal combustion engine to provide energy for variable, longer-distance daily trips.
Bright Auto is still shopping for an engine supplier, Waters said, but the rest of the drivetrain will use Bosch and Getrag components. The IDEA includes energy-saving regenerative brakes and low rolling-resistance tires.
The first 30 mi (48 km) of driving—normal operation with relatively mild stops and starts—would be accomplished by the electric motor fitted in the rear end, said Waters. The front-mounted four-cylinder, a 1.6-L gasoline engine (a 2.0-L powerplant is in the prototype), gets around 40 mpg and kicks in to boost power for acceleration and to counter wheel-slip on icy roads.
Typically, after traveling some 30 mi, the vehicle will run in the “blended” mode, with the 8-kW·h battery sharing the load with the engine, to go the extra distance of a typical route. “So for the initial 50 mi, the IDEA will get about 100 mpg (one-half gallon per 50 miles), or 70 mpg overall for 70 mi,” Waters concluded. The engineers estimate that the vehicle will accelerate from 0 to 100 km/h (62 km/h) is less than 8 s.
“We’re leaning toward using lithium-ion batteries, which have good cycle life and a positive warrantee position, but we’re technologically neutral,” Waters said. He added that his team will spend the next 15 months evaluating and cycle-testing batteries from many vendors and will likely choose two suppliers.
It remains to be seen whether the Bright Auto IDEA is indeed a better mousetrap for fleet operators. Of course, almost a half-billion dollars in Federal money should surely allow the company and the industry to find out.