Sep 28, 2010 (From the CalCars-News archive)
AMP, one of the emerging companies in the gas-guzzler conversion industry, made an intriguing announcement about an undefined relationship with a major carmaker, prompting reports by two longtime automotive journalists. And we have news of a birthday milestone!
HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ANDY FRANK: This year he'll get quite a birthday present. Often described as "the father of the modern plug-in hybrid," Andy has spent more than half his life imagining, designing, prototyping, and educating about PHEVs. He's travelled the world, usually on his own dollar, promoting the concept to automakers, suppliers, and governments. His continuously variable transmission technology has attracted much attention, and some of his dozens of patents have been described as fundamental. It's been said that "Andy has been working on plug-ins so long, he's solved problems others don't even know exist." For decades, he's been on the Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering faculty at the University of California at Davis. http://mae.ucdavis.edu/faculty/frank/frank.html His award-winning "Team Fate" retrofit projects under the FutureCar, FutureTruck and Challenge X programs showed the potential of PHEVs. His program's graduates play important roles in the auto and utility industries. A few years ago he co-founded and became chief technologist at Efficient Drivetrains Inc. to advance these technologies. http://www.efficientdrivetrains.com [Felix has been pleased to be an advisor to that company.]
Many who've known Andy have long hoped that PHEVs would come to market before he retires. He shows no sign of doing that, and he looks, talks, and acts, much younger than 77. So our hopes are met and he gets his wish. Now Andy's on the list to get one of the first PHEVs off the production line -- he's looking forward this fall to driving his own Chevy Volt! (He does have to pay for it himself.)
SUV CONVERSIONS IN BIG CARMAKER'S FUTURE? AMP Holdings, an Ohio company with many industry veterans, some from the original GM EV-1 team, has signed an agreement with an undisclosed major carmaker to electrify one of its SUVs. This is a good precedent for automakers to eventually partner with companies to convert some of the vehicles they've already sold, or to resell new vehicles converted to electric drive. (That's what Solectria Corp. did with some success in the 1990s.) AMP's CEO Steve Burns nails the most important issue: "Time is not a luxury, it's a race to the finish now -- AMP possesses the scalability and nimbleness to get an OEM to mass production with an already existing model literally within months" in the company's press release. http://www.marketwatch.com/story/amp-to-develop-electric-prototype-for-major-oem-2010-09-13?reflink=MW_news_stmp
MEDIA ABOUT AMP: Veteran automotive journalist Paul Eisenstein gave a very positive review to the company's conversion of a Chevy Equinox into a 0-60 in seven seconds, 150-mile range EV (at a high cost of $47,000.)
QUICK REACTION FROM GM: Jim Motavalli also got a chance to drive the Equinox. http://wheels.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/01/the-business-of-converting-existing-cars-into-e-v-s/ He also got to think about one of the more interesting questions, prompting an exchange between the company's CEO and GM:
Amp could presumably produce cheaper conversions of the Equinox if it started with so-called "glider" versions of the car minus their gasoline drivetrains. But though the company is seeking such a relationship with General Motors, Amp doesn't have one now. "G.M. doesn't know if we are friend or foe," Mr. Burns said. "They're trying to figure it out." Rob Peterson, a G.M. spokesman, said, "We're pro-E.V., and it's a good thing that there others out there moving the electric vehicle market forward."
ONE OF THE BEST ROUNDUPS ON CONVERSIONS came from John O'Dell, Senior Editor at Edmunds: "PHEV Conversions Slow to Catch On in U.S., But Could Be Big Elsewhere; Low Cost 'Revolo' Hybridization Kit Could Boost India's Presence in Gas-Electric Arena. Read it all at http://blogs.edmunds.com/greencaradvisor/2010/09/phev-conversions-slow-to-catch-on-in-us-but-could-be-big-elsewhere.html or see our excerpts below:
The idea of converting existing gas- and diesel-burners to plug-in hybrids with electric-drive systems that augment their internal combustion powerplants and boost their fuel economy through the roof is a compelling one.
Selling new hybrids and electric vehicles helps slow our use of oil and reduce air pollution and CO2 emissions from transportation, but it will take decades to sell enough to meaningfully dilute the impact of the nearly 1 billion internal combustion vehicles on the world's roads today. But convert many of those existing vehicles to electric drive and the impact could be tremendous and immediate. That's been the message that plug-in advocates such as CalCars founder Felix Kramer and University of California engineering professor Andy Frank have been preaching for years.
It looks like at least a few people have been listening - at home and abroad. In India, where air quality can use all the help it can get - and where consumers can use all the relief from high fuel prices that the auto industry can pass on to them - a pair of major Indian corporations have teamed up to develop an aftermarket hybridization kit that could someday make its way to the U.S. It may well be that countries such as India and China, acting from a sense of urgency that wealthier, more developed nations such as the U.S. just don't yet feel, will wind up leading the 21st Century transportation parade.
At home, one of the conversion leaders seems to be a Michigan company, ALTe, that has been showing a prototype converted Ford F150 pickup (above and left) in which the standard gas engine has been replaced with a modular system consisting of a smaller internal combustion engine and an electric motor and lithium-ion battery pack. Several others, including XL Hybrids of Boston and Chicago-based Hybrid Electric Vehicles Technologies, offer conversion systems that use the vehicles' existing engines and transmissions and add the necessary batteries and electric drive components. CalCars maintains a list of U.S. plug-in hybrid conversion providers http://www.calcars.org/ice-conversions.html , although Kramer points out that most are start-ups that work on special orders but can't yet sell you a completed vehicle out of inventory. "There's no place yet," he said, "where you can go and buy a validated, warrantied plug-in car."
Barriers range from the high cost of components to the relative paucity of tax credits to help purchasers of conversions. ALTe, which charges about $25,000 for its F-150 conversion, can only qualify for a $2,500 federal tax credit while the new factory-built Chevrolet Volt PHEV and Nissan Leaf battery-electric vehicle each will qualify for a $7,500 credit. That's not smart, says Kramer, who agues that encouraging conversion of most of the nation's millions and millions of big pickups, delivery trucks and SUVs to plug-in systems would save a lot more oil - and cut a lot more CO2 - than selling tens of thousands of new PHEVs and EVs. Yet the maximum federal credit for a conversion is $4,000 and most- like the ALTe system - qualify for much less. The federal formula is a credit of 10 percent of the conversion cost up to a maximum of $4,000 - for a $40,000 conversion.
But things are moving along, albeit slowly. At Alte, company marketing director Brian Polowniak told us recently that he expects to have several announcements to make by late summer, including word on the disposition of his company's application for a $100-million loan guarantee from the federal government's advanced technology vehicle manufacturing program that will help ALTe build a factory to begin turning out a stream of plug-in conversions. Also in the works: a distribution deal with a major auto dealership chain.
And in India, the new aftermarket hybridization kit, called the Revolo system (right, taken from "revolution"), is slated to go on sale by the end of the year. Its developers claim it can increase the typical Indian-market passenger car's fuel economy by 40 percent while reducing CO2 output by more than 30 percent. Once the business model is proven in India, Pandit told us, the companies expect to go global with the system. Company executives have hinted that a Revolo plug-in hybrid conversion kit for a small car in Europe or the U.S. could cost as little at $5,000 using lead-acid batteries, he said.
The joint venture is conducting market research to "develop a demand estimate," said Pandit , who believes that the low initial price and low operating cost of converted vehicles will help make the Revolo conversion kit a hit with both private and fleet b=vehicle owners in India. It's that kind of low-cost, easy-to-install kit that will be needed to make plug-in hybrid conversions accessible to most people in the U.S., said Kramer - who also believes that it will take the development of smaller and more powerful batteries and inexpensive in-wheel electric motors to truly make U.S. passenger car conversions work, as there is little room on most cars to day to add an electric motor and a battery pack.
He sees, and he's not alone, the commercial-vehicle segments as the immediate markets for conversions. Not only are trucks, vans and SUVs larger and better able to accommodate the extra equipment a hybrid system require, "it just makes more economic sense to start with big vehicles and migrate down," Kramer said. Commercial fleets look at total cost of ownership over many years and many miles, so a higher initial purchase cost isn't that much of a concern if the vehicle saves money on maintenance and fuel." And if the U.S. doesn't get on the ball - private business and government alike - Kramer worries, pointing to efforts such as Revolo, then fleet operators may be purchasing their conversion systems, or converted vehicles, from overseas suppliers in the electric-drive industry's repeat of the Asian takeover of the small-car business in the U.S.