Plug-In Pickups: A Market in Need of Products
An initiative to increase utility fleets’ use of plug-in hybrid electric pickup trucks (see “Utilities Push Toward Fleet Electrification”) runs up against the reality that there are few vehicle options available to interested fleets.
But as growth in the electric power industry slows, electrifying the transportation sector “is a huge, albeit long-term opportunity for load growth,” the Edison Electric Institute stated in a June 2014 report, “Transportation Electrification: Utility Fleets Leading the Charge.”
Electric utilities, EEI suggests, are missing an opportunity to help themselves by not expanding their use of plug-in electric vehicles. Only about 1.7 percent of the vehicles purchased by electric utilities in the last five years were equipped with plug-in technology, EEI noted, using data from Utilimarc, a consulting firm based in Minneapolis.
Light-duty pickup trucks provide the best opportunity for establishing momentum in the electrification initiative because they comprise the largest vehicle segment in electric utility fleets, accounting for 21.6 percent of fleet vehicles in 2013, according to EEI. A plug-in hybrid electric (PHE) truck can power tools on-site and provide backup electrical power in case of emergencies, while also serving as an example to consumers that the utility is a progressive supporter of its own products.
The problem is that there is only one option currently available.
General Motors dropped the non-plug-in Chevrolet Silverado/GMC Sierra gasoline-electric hybrid models before the 2015 model-year upgrade, and a company spokesman said there are no plans to resurrect the concept at this time, much less add a PHE pickup.
Dodge built and tested 140 PHE Ram 1500 models in 2011 and 2012 as part of a grant program with the U.S. Department of Energy, but the truck maker acknowledged at the time that it had no plans for a production version. Recently a company spokesman confirmed as much.
Ford Motor Co. said in late 2014 that it was working on a hybrid powertrain for the F-150. A spokeswoman told Utility Fleet Professional that research is proceeding, but she declined to provide additional information, including whether it would offer a plug-in version.
That leaves utilities trying to support the electrification initiative with the VTRUX, a Silverado 4×4 crew cab conversion built by VIA Motors (www.viamotors.com). The VTRUX powertrain includes two electric motors and a small V-6 gasoline engine. The engine powers a generator that recharges the batteries, and drive power comes from the motors.
Currently, VIA’s only offering is the 4×4 Silverado, but they are taking orders for the 4×2 regular cab Silverado, the Chevy Express and 1-ton vans, said Jeff Esfeld, VIA’s national fleet sales director.
The company began VTRUX production in June of this year at a plant in San Luis Potosi, Mexico. Esfeld said they would produce about 250 units in the calendar third quarter of 2015, but that he expects that number to grow to between 2,000 to 3,000 units next year.
VIA certainly has the room to grow. The plant can produce 10,000 units a year and has space to double that capacity, Esfeld said. They also can handle a low number of conversions at their Orem, Utah, headquarters, but down the road they plan to keep the Silverado crew cab conversions in Mexico and build another plant in the U.S., he said.
About the Author: Jim Galligan has been covering the commercial truck transportation sector for more than 30 years and has extensive experience covering the utility fleet market. In addition to writing and editing for magazines, his background also includes writing for daily newspapers, trade associations and corporations.
Looking for the TCO with PHEVs
If the electric utility industry’s initiative to increase the number of plug-in hybrid electric pickup trucks in utility fleets is to have any chance to succeed, eventually the total cost of ownership will have to be able to compete with fossil fuel-based trucks.
Absent credits and cash incentives, that may take some time. The only plug-in electric pickup currently on the market is the VTRUX, a 4×4 crew cab version of the Chevrolet Silverado built by VIA Motors. With a delivery price topping $70,000, about twice that of a standard model, finding a return on the investment is a challenge for any fleet.
Jeff Esfeld, national fleet sales director with VIA, said the total cost of ownership is better than it may appear and that the price of the VTRUX will drop as volume increases and the company continues to improve the model.
“We’re trying to take one-third of the cost out of the system in the next three years,” he said, adding that the company will make a “significant” improvement very soon with the software controlling the gas engine and how it charges the battery to improve fuel economy.
Electric utilities are adding VIA models to their fleets, but since production only began in June, it is too early to have any reliable data, several representatives said.
Alabama Power has four VIA vehicles in operation – two VTRUX pickups and two vans – with two more pickups on the way, said Thomas Browne, manager of fleet services.
“Our goal is to show that the plug-in electric pickup has a viable place in the market,” he said. The company hasn’t had them long, but Browne said they expect them to perform well. Alabama Power is using the vehicles in limited operation and will showcase them at demonstration and promotional events, he said.
Florida Power and Light is another VIA customer, but a spokeswoman declined to provide details, noting “it is too early to give feedback.”
Other customers include Duke Energy, Pacific Gas and Electric and Southern California Edison, Esfeld said.