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Media Coverage of Gas-Guzzler Conversion Companies Grows
Aug 20, 2010 (From the CalCars-News archive)
This posting originally appeared at CalCars-News, our newsletter of breaking CalCars and plug-in hybrid news. View the original posting here.
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After we started CalCars, we saw how every journalist's "aha" moment about the feasibility and benefits of plug-in hybrids helped build credibility for PHEVs. Media reports provide some independent validation that can be critical to gaining acceptance for new ideas and solutions. Now as entrepreneurs emerge and become available to media, experienced journalists in the automotive, technology, and cleantech media are recognizing and chronicling the progress being made by new companies. Here are three examples plus info on conversion prototypes that will be on view in Michigan and California in September. And we wrap up with a new study confirming the icing on the cake of diesel gas-guzzler conversions: reducing soot ("black carbon") that is a significant cause of climate change.

GIGAOM NETWORK: "ALTe: Former Tesla Team Eyes Old Company Cars" by Josie Garthwaite­2010/­08/­16/­alte-former-tesla-team-eyes-old-company-cars/ interviews ALTe's Sales & Marketing VP Brian Polowniak about the company's technology and production plans.

Garthwaite reports, "A fleet operator who's ready to scrap or sell a vehicle that's, say four years old and has just gone out of warranty, has a couple of options. One would be to buy a new, conventional model for $25,000-$30,000. Alternatively, they could pay $26,500 for the baseline ALTe conversion, which will take 13 man-hours, come with a warranty on the powertrain for at least five years or 50,000 miles, and could extend the life of the vehicle for about seven years, according to Polowniak."

The story points out that "ALTe, however, is just one competitor in an increasingly crowded field of startups hoping to supply powertrain tech as major automakers get into the plug-in game and fleet operators face new mandates to green their fleets." It describes ALTe's position among possible competitors Eaton, Raser, Wrightspeed, REV and Azure, and reports that the company is in late stages of an application for a $100M loan the Department of Energy's Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program. The company has so far raised $9M in private funds and has an $8.4M Michigan economic development tax credit.

TECHNOLOGY REVIEW: "Converting Gas-Guzzlers into Hybrids: Companies hope to turn aging trucks, vans, and taxis into more efficient hybrids," by Kevin Bullis, describes the plans by three companies: XL Hybrids of Boston; MA ALTe of Auburn Hills, MI; and Hybrid Electric Vehicles Technologies (HEVT) of Chicago, IL.

Describing the technologies, Bullis reports, "Alt-E, based in Auburn Hills, MI, plans to gut conventional vehicles, replacing the engine with a combination of electric motor, battery packs, electronic controls, and a gasoline generator... . The other two companies plan more modest conversions--tacking an electric motor, battery, and controls onto the existing engine and transmission via the drive shaft that emerges from the engine to drive the wheels or the rear differential, which translates the motion of the drive shaft to the rear axle... . The companies have all developed proprietary control systems to connect their equipment with the vehicles' existing computers and coordinate between the gasoline engines and electric motors. Prices range from $26,500 for Alt-E's F150 conversion (about the cost of new, low end F150) to under $10,000 for XL Hybrids' conversion of delivery vans or taxis.

While noting that all three companies have raised some initial funds, Bullis says, "All the companies are at an early stage of development and have so far only converted one or two vehicles." Notably, Bullis elicited favorable quotes from two leading automotive analysts:

  • Fleets are "a solid market to go after," says Eric Fedewa, vice president of global powertrain forecasts for analyst firm IHS Automotive, in part because fleet managers are willing to pay extra up front to save on per mile expenses, the figure that ultimately matters most to them. Savings on maintenance is particularly important, he says, since the time a vehicle is off the road can cost a company potential revenue.
  • If the conversion companies are successful, it could spur investments from major automakers in developing their own hybrid and plug-in hybrid fleets vehicles, says Oliver Hazimeh, a director at the consulting firm PRTM . "If they see some fleets converting, I think automakers will take notice," he says. [Note: PRTM and Hazimeh provided technical analysis for the Electrification Coalition's policy reports and recommendations.]

PLUGINCARS.COM: "Are Fleet Conversions the Best Bet for EV Startups?" by Zach McDonald­are-fleet-conversions-best-bet-ev-startups-56471.html reports that the arrival of new plug-in vehicles doesn't mean the end of conversion companies. He reported on August 17, "The Japanese Postal Service announced today that it will purchase roughly 1,000 converted Fuji Heavy minivehicles from a startup called Zerosports. The company will outfit the vehicles with an electric powertrain powered by lithium ion batteries, yielding a 60-mile range with about an 8-hour charge time. The postal service replaces about 3,000 vehicles per year and has pledged to make one third of future replacement vehicles electric."

McDonald briefly describes ALTe's development of prototype conversions of a Ford Crown Victoria and a Ford F-150 pickup truck, and concludes, "Getting the economics to work for fleet conversions might be the safer bet for EV start-ups than the difficult route taken by companies like Tesla, Fisker and Coda--aiming to build personal electric passenger vehicles from the ground up."

This story elicited a welcome comment from plug-in advocate Chelsea Sexton, "As with PHEV conversions, the key to fleet conversions needs to be quality and credibility. Especially where public funding is in play, I'd expect these conversions to meet all NHSTA safety regs (including crash testing) and be emissions certified. As with the Prius, focusing on one model at a time can enable this, but doesn't guarantee it, so it will be up to each individual conversion company to prove itself."


Confirming our view that reducing soot from old diesel trucks (as part of what can be done when these vehicles are partly or entirely electrified) represent the low-hanging fruit for climate change, we refer readers to: "Study Finds Controlling Soot May Be Fastest Method to Reduce Arctic Ice Loss and Global Warming; Second-Leading Cause of Global Warming After CO2­2010/­07/­jacobson-20100729.html Controlling soot from fossil fuels and solid biofuels may be a faster method of reducing Arctic ice loss and global warming than other options, including controlling CH4 or CO2, although all controls are needed, according to a new study by Dr. Mark Z. Jacobson at Stanford University.

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