For a Better Electric Truck, Mix & Match Battery Packs

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Can a mix-and-match approach to battery packs help bring electric trucks and buses into the mainstream? Motiv Power Systems, a startup launched out of Stanford University and working with Khosla Ventures-backed battery maker Seeo, has just scored funding from the state of California to try and find out.

Motiv aims to break into the nascent market for electric medium- and heavy-duty vehicles through the back door of the diesel truck market — providing “job shops” (which integrate diesel systems into vehicles in batches for fleet customers) with a mix-and-match library of batteries and motors to choose from, and the electrical and communication system to tie it all together.

“It’s the model that the truck industry uses today for diesel trucks,” CEO and co-founder Jim Castelaz told us, with trucks coming out of job shops using a selection of off-the-shelf components, instead of from production lines. So Motiv’s goal is to make it as easy for job shops to outfit a custom truck with an electric drive system as it is for them to crank out a diesel model.

The five-person company, co-founded by a pair of engineers who previously worked on startup Adura Systems’ technology for hybrid trucks and buses, aims to be more than a middle man. Sustained so far on angel investment and consulting revenue, San Mateo, Calif.-based Motiv says much of its innovation lies in a set of algorithms and adapters for managing the flow of power between the batteries, generators, motors and other components and providing real-time feedback about the battery and vehicle’s performance.

Of course, Motiv is hardly the only company working on a management system for battery packs. Tesla Motors (s TSLA), Atieva, Flux Power and General Motors (s GM) are just a few of the players racing to get a competitive edge (in the case of GM) or build a business around the software and controls for batteries in next-gen vehicles.

Motiv, however, is specifically targeting energy storage at larger scale than what GM and Tesla are using in cars like the Roadster and Chevy Volt. The startup believes one of the hurdles for widespread adoption of electric trucks and buses is managing the larger number of cells required for the hefty battery pack in vehicles of this size.

The more cells you have, the more difficult it is to manage the power flowing through them, and as Castelaz has explained in this white paper, it’s a “super-linear” relationship — 200 cells are more than twice as difficult to manage as 100 cells. Eventually Motiv hopes to expand beyond automotive applications to also manage large scale energy storage systems for utilities and backup power, for example.

It’s too early to know whether Motiv’s system will succeed in the market. But the company is on its way to collecting the on-road, real-world data it will need to prove its claims and start winning over customers. (Castelaz said prospective customers have been “excited but a little apprehensive. They want to see the numbers.”)

By August Motiv expects to launch a demo project supported by a $1.3 million grant awarded this month by the California Energy Commission. Using batteries from Seeo, Motiv will outfit a shuttle bus in Bauer Worldwide Transportation’s fleet with its electric drive system.

Bauer provides a shuttle service for many tech companies between employees’ San Francisco homes and Silicon Valley workplaces. According to the CEC, the shuttle will have an estimated 100-mile all-electric range, and over the course of eight years could save some 40,000 gallons of diesel fuel and 435 tons of greenhouse gas emissions. The project will have the shuttle running Bauer’s usual Bay Area routes (allowing Motiv to collect data along the way), and the CEC anticipates that it will support 19 “high-tech” jobs between Motiv, Seeo (which Castelaz calls a “long term strategic partner”) and Bauer.

The $1.3 million in state funds comes with a dollar-for-dollar cost sharing requirement, and Castelaz told us it has raised a “small seed investment” to help meet its share. He said the company won’t need to raise any more money until after completion of the CEC demo. After that, however, Motiv plans to raise around $4 million-$5 million to launch a “beta fleet” of 12 vehicles. Those vehicles, including a variety of models in different weight classes, would run for about a year while Motiv “logs a lot of miles and hours,” gathering the data to make the case for its system. From there, Castelaz says Motiv will be ready for a self-funded commercial launch.

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