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Trotting out auto industry veteran and the former public face of Chevy Volt, Bob Lutz, as a spokesman, VIA Motors on Tuesday showed off its technology of converting conventional trucks, cargo vans and SUVs into hybrid electric vehicles and said it plans to start producing a few thousand of them this year.
VIA Motors takes new vehicles made by automakers and hires engineering firms to add an electric powertrain, including a lithium-ion battery pack, to provide up to 40 miles of range. A gasoline engine will then kick in to charge the battery to run the electric motor, Lutz said during a press conference at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. The technology is similar in concept to the GM’s Chevy Volt, and Lutz previously led development of the Volt at GM. The fuel economy should be around 100 miles per gallon, noted Lutz.
The Utah company plans to start converting vehicles from GM initially, including the Silverado, Tahoe and Express van, David West, chief marketing officer of VIA Motors, told me by phone after the press conference. The company is targeting corporate customers first, such as utility PG&E, but expects to start selling its hybrid vehicles in a few years (maybe 2013).
The trucks will likely be the most popular choice because of their attractiveness with fleet owners and consumers in North America, West said. The company is using multiple lithium-ion battery suppliers, including A123 Systems (s AONE) and Valence Technology, he added.
Prices for the hybrids will generally cost 35 percent more than their gasoline-only equivalent, but VIA expects the prices to go down as it increases production, West said. The hybrids also should deliver fuel savings and emission-reduction benefits that will appeal to corporate customers if not also consumers, he said.
Lutz mentioned Coca-Cola and Verizon (s VZ) as customers, but these companies are still evaluating VIA’s technology, West said. PG&E appears to be a major customer now since the utility joined VIA executives at the press conference to tout its involvement in VIA’s technology development. PG&E began working with VIA on the hybrid technology in 2008 and has invested $400,000 in the development work. It’s been given VIA feedback on its experience with two hybrid trucks since it began test driving them last year.
The utility estimates that the demonstration vehicles it has tested could deliver annual fuel maintenance savings of $7000 per vehicle compared with conventional trucks, said Greg Pruett, senior vice president of corporate affairs at PG&E.
PG&E owns two trucks now and plans to order more trucks, which the utility describes as the “beta” version. PG&E is looking at buying 10-12 more of them in the future, but the delivery time frame has yet to be determined.
There was no shortage of bold words uttered by Lutz and Alan Perriton, chief operating officer of VIA Motors, during the unveiling.
“This is not just a truck, a SUV or a van. It’s a series of products that redefine transportation,” said Perriton, who also worked at GM for years
VIA executives are marketing their hybrids as power supplies as well. Companies who won these cars could use the battery power for running tools while on a worksite, for example. A utility could even use the vehicles for dealing with power outages, PG&E said.
The hybrids can provide power for “work crews, caterers … outdoor parties, outdoor weddings, outdoor concerts,” Lutz said. “Think of a 3-day camping trip where you have unlimited power with the car you drive into the woods with.”
VIA expects to convert 2,000 to 3,000 of GM vehicles this year and hopes to bump up production to 10,000 units next year and 20,000 after that, West said. It’s hired companies such as Roush Engineering to do the conversion work, he added.
Photo courtesy of PG&E