These Startups Are Leading the Way Toward Plug-in Trucks

Today the most efficient gas-powered pickups are rated for only 22 mpg and while plug-in tech could easily double that or more, thus far only startups are announcing plans to do so.

While legacy automakers raise prices on incrementally improved conventional tech, and report increased sales for pickups and SUVs – all while petitioning President Trump to alleviate regulations – newcomers are aiming to carve out a niche plug-in business.

Put plainly: even though underfunded, and pushing long odds, enough of a business case exists today that upstarts like Workhorse, Via Motors, XL Hybrids and Tesla have started on plug-in trucks in some form or fashion – typically focused on fleet buyers for now.

Rumors that Ford may be developing a plug-in hybrid F-150 by decade’s end have gone out, and some believe GM might reveal tech it also has waiting in the wings, but to date automakers have been content with merely putting a finer hone on conventional internal combustion technology.

SEE ALSO: America’s 5 Most Fuel Efficient Trucks – 2017

So it goes. This state of affairs is a pity to those wanting to see the needle move in a more meaningful way on the petroleum-conservation dial, but with regulations still cracking a whip, and startups stirring things up, it may be just a matter of time before plug-in truck electrification takes hold.

And that would be a good thing, say advocates. It’s been a periodic lament that the majority of hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and all-electric vehicles have been compact and midsized cars, while the worst offenders in fuel economy are bypassed by major automakers.

Glaring Miss By the Auto Industry

It’s long been known that if you take a 15 mpg truck, and improve it by 15 mpg, you increase its fuel efficiency by 100 percent. If you take a 30 mpg sedan, and increase its efficiency by 15 mpg, you improve it by 50 percent.

In both cases, you get a 15 mpg increase, but with the fuel-swilling truck, a higher percentage of fuel is saved. Trucks use a lot of gasoline, so even a 20-40 percent improvement – as could be achieved by non-plug-in hybridization – is a bigger reduction than the same reduction for a car that started off using a relatively smaller absolute amount of gas.

In 2008 GM was lauded for its tow-capable two-mode hybrid system. A non-plug-in, mpg in 2009 was improved from 16 mpg to 20 for 4WD, and power was good. Several variants were sold until a couple years ago. As has been a practice for “green” vehicles, GM chose to content and price them relatively highly ensuring they stayed a minority product.

Where real savings could be had is with plug-in hybrids offering a long-enough stretch of electric driving, or pure battery electric trucks which could save even more fuel and emissions.

According to Scott Shepard, senior research analyst with global market research and consulting firm Navigant Research, the cost of batteries is still too high to make a good case to major automakers.

“When you do the math on pickup trucks, the battery price point that would make the plug-in hybrid or the battery-electric-powered truck competitive against a conventional competitor is still below where battery prices are today,” said Shepard in the March issue of Utility Fleet International.

Even for fleet operators – which have been targeted by startups as able to appreciate the value of more-expensive but cheaper to operate plug-ins – Shepard is projecting a few years or longer.

“For these trucks to become more mainstream, it’s not going to start for a while. The rationale behind that is largely the added-on power and range requirements that these vehicles have to meet to even come to market,” he said. “That doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen. I think you’re looking out to 2025 or even 2030 before you get to the point where batteries are providing the same number of miles as an internal combustion engine. Then you’ve hit the point where this option is actually viable.”

If Shepard sounds bearish, others are bullish, and others still are in between.

Among the more optimistic are companies that despite limited funding are starting today to carve out markets for themselves. If, like Tesla, new businesses can get a leg up, they also like Tesla, stand to push the majors to act sooner.

Consumers can only hope. Meanwhile here are a few companies working in that direction.

XL Hybrids

Founded in 2009 by MIT Senior Lecturer Tod Hynes, XL Hybrids focuses on quick plug-in hybrid conversions for class 2-6 commercial fleet vehicles down to pickup trucks.

The Boston-area company touts 20-50-percent improvement in miles driven per gallon and resultant CO2 emissions savings.

Closest to the heart of ordinary retail buyers is the company’s XLP Plug-in Hybrid retrofit for the Ford F-150.

Unfortunately for would-be individual customers is this is targeted at commercial fleet buyers, but it does present a benchmark above the existing F-150.

XL Hybrids says a 50-percent mpg improvement can be had with a battery greater than 10-kWh that can provide e-drive up to 85 mph.

Charging on from a wall socket at level 1 takes less than 12 hours, and 240-volt level 2 is under 3 hours. The system weighs 700 pounds, and works for two- and four-wheel-drive powertrains.

Via Motors

A familiar name, and backed by “father of the Chevy Volt” Bob Lutz, Via Motors specializes in retrofitting its plug-in hybrid powertrains into new GM light duty pickups, SUVs, and vans.

Via’s new eREV powertrain uses a 23 kWh battery and claims up to 40 miles EV range. The system is coupled with a 4.3-liter V6 that generates electricity.

Up to 190 kW peak (415 Nm) motor power makes for quick acceleration, and a 6,500-pound curb weight extended cab VTRUX has a 1,000 pound payload capacity.

Tesla

With the Model 3 on the near horizon and a Model Y crossover next, Tesla has its hands full, but a truck is something company head Elon Musk has promised.

Unlike plug-in hybrids, this one is to be all-electric and Musk tweeted in April it would be revealed in a couple of years.

Before that however, Musk said to expect its semi truck in September 2017.

The semi, to be as innovative for trucks as the Model S has been for cars, of course is not for retail customers, but the good news is the pickup is to be.

Specs are anyone’s guess, but Tesla says it does not make slow vehicles, or ugly ones one might add, so this may be something to look forward to.

Workhorse

Last but not least is Workhorse which unveiled its W-15 fleet-oriented plug-in hybrid pickup this March in Long Beach, Calif.

Unlike others, this one is made from the ground up based on the company’s E-Gen electric technology used in Workhorse medium-duty delivery trucks, said Mike Dektas.

The company believes this is the first purpose-built full-size electrified pickup, and being such, it has room for enough Panasonic 18650 li-ion batteries to provide 80 miles range, and 0-60 in 5.5 seconds

Extra large crumple zones and crash mitigation technology including automatic braking and lane centering technology add to safety, and good news as well is the company is taking names for a potential consumer model.

The fleet model, due for production in late 2018 in the company’s Union City, Indiana plant is to start at just $52,500, said media representative Dektas, and details remain to be seen on a potential model you may buy as an individual consumer.

“The W-15 is an exciting vehicle,” said Dektas. “We have had a lot of response from people saying they would like to buy it as a consumer pickup – so we are beginning to collect names of interested parties on our website – if we get enough interest we will also market the truck to consumers.”