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Green Wheels

Green Wheels: EVs get a practical boost

Utah firm converts pickups, vans and SUVs to plug-in hybrids.

Published November 30, 2012

Mark Burdge says he’s found a good use for plug-in hybrid technology.

Put it in light trucks, vans and SUVs.

It’s an example of how special niches — think urban car-sharing pools — can lighten the shadow cast by lagging EV sales.

Burdge is a vice-president of VIA Motors, based in Utah. Its vehicles are called VTrux and, to avoid conflict with a certain train service, that’s also the name of its Canadian subsidiary.

First, we have to distinguish between pure electric vehicles, which roll to a gentle stop when the battery dies, and plug-in hybrids, where a gasoline engine takes over.

To complicate matters, the hybrids come in two forms. Some have two complete power trains, internal-combustion and electric — side-by-side. Others, “extended range,” have only an electric power train: As in the Chevy Volt, the gasoline engine runs a generator that keeps the battery charged on the fly.

VIA’s products are extended range; hardly a surprise since the Volt’s champion, retired General Motors executive Bob Lutz, is involved.

The company simply buys conventional vehicles — in this case, from GM — then, keeps the engine, removes the transmission and some other drive parts, and adds electric propulsion.

Why extended-range?

It eliminates the transmission and a few other internal-combustion bits and lets the gasoline engine run at its most efficient rate.

Why trucks?

Most are used every day, but for relatively short distances. VIA claims its conversions have an all-battery range of about 65 kilometres after each plug-in. Cut that number to 50 to account for real-world conditions and it’s still sufficient for many construction outfits, contractors, and utilities. And, of course, the gasoline engine ensures they won’t be stuck if the workday outlasts the battery.

On battery power, Burdge says, these vehicles consume the equivalent of less than 1 L/100 km. Overall, including typical gasoline-engine time, they average better than 2.5.

The system reduces oil changes and tire and brake wear, and does away with transmission repairs, he adds. The parts removed are sold to lower the final price.

The apparent hitch, of course, is that the conversion nearly doubles the cost of a conventional truck.

No matter, Burdge insists: VTrux still have a much lower total ownership cost — original price and financing (including incentives), maintenance and fuel — than their internal-combustion equivalents.

According to the company’s online calculator, a pick-up driven 77 km per day for five days a week — about 20,000 km per year — with gas at $1.25 per litre and electricity costing 12 cents per kilowatt-hour, would produce a total overall saving of $683 per year. For a van, it claims $1,870.

VIA buys its vehicles — opting for the smallest engine — from GM, which showed interest when the young company knocked on automakers’ doors.

The electric system is 650 volts, with a 24-kilowatt-hour, liquid-cooled lithium-ion battery pack and a 402-horsepower high-torque electric motor. Burdge says it outperforms regular internal-combustion, and can supply electricity for uses outside the vehicle.

VIA has focussed on fleet sales since its trucks were unveiled last January, but plans to hit the consumer market in 2013 — which returns us to that niche business.

VTrux — distributed in Canada by Sun Country Highway, the company creating a charging network along the TransCanada — will be the biggest in a class of vehicles generating buzz because they save fuel while meeting North Americans’ demand for size, power and long-distance driving.

With the exception of Tesla’s increasingly pricey Model S, pure EVs are essentially small, urban runabouts. Plug-in hybrid technology not only eliminates their range issues but also satisfies the craving for size.

“We could downsize everyone, but we need to be sensitive (to the market) and find solutions for the vehicles we need and love,” Burdge says.

Something like eating your cake, and having it, too.

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