Last week in Indianapolis we had opportunity to drive a Ford E-350 van converted to a plug-in series hybrid by ALTe while learning also of the company’s plans for the alternative energy fleet market.
Before retrofitting a 2.0-liter Ford Focus four-cylinder engine/generator, two Remy motors, and 21.6-kwh A123 Systems battery pack, the Ford got around 7 mpg in real world driving. It however now gets 26 mpg with engine running, or burns absolutely no gas for 22 miles on battery power.
That makes this humble-looking 10,000 GVW test mule one of the most-efficient trucks of its type anywhere, and unlike a pure battery powered vehicle, this one, not unlike a Chevy Volt, has no “range anxiety.”
You may recall the Auburn Hills, Michigan-based ALTe as one of the rising stars among alternative tech transportation companies that was getting a fair amount of press a couple of years ago.
It was founded by three former Tesla employees in 2008 and in 2011 was named to Forbes’ list of most promising companies. Its U.S.-made and developed plug-in tech was backed by investments including a $100 million private loan that same year.
Not a lot has been written about the company in the past year or two as it weathered a dry spell following politicized backlash against U.S. tech startups in the wake of the Solyndra and Fisker closures. These, if you may have noticed, put a chilling effect on federal loan programs and the industry in general, and other less fortunate companies have folded.
Forbes in 2011 reported ALTe was waiting for an additional $65 million in low-interest federal loans to float it towards production status, but the company today says that money was delayed, and delayed, and delayed … and never materialized.
Rather than continue waiting and die on the vine like some fellow startups, last year, ALTe formed a joint venture in China which has born some fruit and with potential for more, and currently it’s working with major Korean interests as it also seeks new U.S. clients.
At its peak ALTe grew to around 40 employees, had several promising contracts, but presently it has about half that many employees. However, company leaders say it has come out stronger and wiser with the same potential that gave it such an initial boost.
The company has never taken federal monies, but today as two angel investors and some revenues from various operations keep it going, it is hiring once again, and in the words of Benny Rediers, its director of development and validation, ALTe is going through a “rebirth.”
What ALTe Does
As it began doing, ALTe today develops electrified powertrains for class 2-6 fleet uses. It has sharpened its focus for now on shuttle buses, delivery vans for various businesses, and utility service vehicles.
In China it has made mobile police command posts – sort of like SWAT trucks – and other small niche vehicles based on mostly Chinese hardware and vehicles. In Korea, it’s working toward electrifying buses and other vehicles.
For the U.S, its E-350 and E-450-based plug-in hybrids are thoroughly tested and ready for sale now. Also – and not unlike VIA Motors – it has been developing lighter trucks for fleet duty, although VIA converts Chevrolets, and ALTe does Ford F-150 and F-250s.
VIA’s early designs called for a GM four-cylinder range-extending engine, but it now uses 4.3-liter sixes as they come standard in GM vehicles. ALTe is still focused on more-efficient Ford fours that are half the size.
ALTe’s F-Series trucks retrofitted with a 2.0 or 2.5-liter Ford four-cylinder in place of a V8 net 30 mpg in gas mode – about what VIA says is possible with the six-cylinder – or around an also-identical 40 miles in all-electric operation.
These comparisons to VIA are our own observations, and for its part, ALTe says it does not view VIA as a direct competitor, but rather is supportive of that alternative energy startup.
And, ALTe differs in that it is now no longer only a series hybrid specialist.
A couple years ago that was what it was known for, but now it’s open also to parallel hybrids, full battery electric vehicles, and it could also leave in place the V8, or other stock gas or diesel engine for some plug-in hybrid applications. Further, it can make use of certain ratios from the stock transmission, or replace it with a simplified driveline component, as required.
The company is essentially positioned as a versatile solutions provider. Its expertise centers around CAD designing of electrified trucks that can pay back their clients within perhaps half the life cycle of the particular vehicle.
This may be four years or somewhat longer, but while the vehicles are “green,” thus anticipating federal emissions rules not even yet in force, they can save money today, said the company’s president and CEO Darren Post.
Post is one of several on the company’s executive team with extensive major automaker experience. Another is Tony Posawatz, the former vehicle line director for the Chevrolet Volt, and most recently the CEO of Fisker.
Posawatz – the other “father of the Volt” not unlike Bob Lutz over at VIA – signed on as vice chairman last September.
Post had been president and this May rose to both president and CEO when former CEO and co-founder John Thomas left for other opportunities.
Post is also a former GM line director, and among his 35 years of powertrain experience there and at Delphi, for 10 years he oversaw such vehicles as the Saturn Ion, Pontiac Solstice, Saturn Sky, Opel Zafira and Chevrolet Impala.
He and Posawatz are credited with focusing the company’s direction toward class 2-6 vehicles, while at the same time opening the company to essentially tailor-make vehicles that must pay back.
Post said ALTe is actively seeking clients, already working with some major fleet accounts toward ultimately meeting their needs, and open to more.
The company has already worked in the past with PG&E with test vehicles, and it once had a deal with major vehicle wholesaler Manheim to offer plug-in hybrid retrofits.
Today, Post said essentially fleet customers can consult with ALTe which would evaluate their needs, and propose vehicles that do the job of conventional ones, albeit with a cost savings.
Ultimately, this involves an initial outlay over and above a stock vehicle – the E-350 is about a $30-$35,000 retrofit in addition to the value of the truck – but the fuel savings and reduced maintenance yield a value proposition some fleet managers will understand.
Post conceded some fleet managers do have a hard time with paying double a stock vehicle’s sticker price, and it is streamlining its vehicles to right-size batteries, motors, engines, and other hardware to avoid over-doing it.
The bottom line, he said is the vehicles have to show a return on investment, and assuming sufficient miles driven, this is usually the case. In fact – and as is typical for these cost-benefit equations – the more miles driven, the faster the payback.
E-350 Test Drive
The test mule in the pictures is a 2010 model year with 2010 Focus engine. It has been driven very hard by ALTe, including Senior Test Technician Kyle Maki whose job is to break it.
First, his job was to help build it, but Maki said he’s done plenty of abusing 0-60 runs, hard hill climbs, long multi-state drives, local route simulations, everything.
We took the vehicle for a short drive just to feel the powertrain in all-electric mode, and to discern as well as possible how it handles corners and braking.
Starting out, the vehicle was notably quiet and smooth, and rate of acceleration was in line with a conventional truck of this type.
The naturally aspirated 2.0-liter Focus engine was shut off, and its relatively small stock exhaust – for such a large truck – was emitting nothing. All that could be heard was motor whine, and some noise from the straight-cut gears of the prototype’s two-speed pneumatic transmission which was originally developed for a drag racer.
By the way, ALTe’s commercial vehicles may also see the stock transmission left in place, albeit with only a couple ratios used, or, as Maki said, ALTe has sourced a two-speed hydraulic transmission with quieter helical-cut gears it would deliver in new trucks.
Regenerative braking on this truck is present, but was not set extremely aggressive. Letting off the accelerator would see the vehicle characteristically slow down as energy was sent back to the pack.
Cornering was about what would be expected too, and in short, the drive experience is within realm of a large vehicle like this which could alternately be configured as a delivery van like this one was, or shuttle bus.
Maki said they’d trucked the vehicle there from Michigan, but was preparing to drive it five hours back after the conference.
Some alternative-tech companies have come and gone despite taking federal monies, but ALTe has never taken – and thus never lost – taxpayer dollars, and is still afloat, leaner, and refocused.
We may see battery electric school buses, and all sorts of fuel-saving vehicles with varying degrees of electrification from this company in coming years.
Typically, an engineered solution may take 4-6 months between up front consulting and simulation analysis for several weeks with the client (at no up-front cost). This then includes electronically developing a powertrain, engineering/constructing the parts and software integration prior to building and testing actual vehicles. ALTe can retrofit used vehicles, or build new.
Ultimately, the company would like to secure a deal where it’s an original equipment upgrade on a truck builder’s assembly line.
We were told also that in Korea there are thousands of buses they would like to electrify, and the Chinese are also eager to do more.
The U.S. company however is working for more in its home market, and its motto is “customer driven, purpose built.”
It has paid some dues due to no fault of its own, and says now it is poised to continue with the same value proposition that led to its existence and made it one of the early standouts in alternative energy transportation.