The phenomenon known as the law of diminishing returns applies to fuel consumption in cars but goes largely unnoticed. It states that improvements in fuel economy have less of an impact on consumption the more efficient the baseline vehicle is.
A simple example: improving the efficiency of a family sedan from 30 mpg to 50 mpg saves 133 gallons of gasoline every 10,000 miles. Improving the efficiency of a pickup truck from 18 mpg to 25 mpg, however, saves 155 gallons over the same distance.
The atmosphere and our wallets would benefit the most if we concentrated our efforts on the least efficient vehicles; though projects like the Volkswagen XL1 are admirable, making an already efficient car ultra-efficient has a limited impact on fuel consumption and emissions.
This brings us to the topic of discussion: why aren’t there more electric pickup trucks? Surely operating the thirstiest vehicles with an electric motor rather than a gasoline engine would have the greatest positive effect on fuel consumption and emissions, especially given the volume of pickup trucks sold annually in the United States.
The idea of hybrid and electric pickups has been kicked around for years. GM produced hybrid versions of the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra beginning in 2009 before discontinuing them due to slow sales in 2012. Toyota and Ford briefly agreed to collaborate on hybrid pickup powertrains in 2011, then decided to go their separate ways last July after conducting a feasibility study.
Electric trucks have a longer past. GM and Ford both made electric pickups in the late 1990s, modified versions of the Chevrolet S10 and Ford Ranger built almost exclusively for fleet use. These trucks used either lead-acid or nickel-metal hydride batteries providing range from 45 to 80 miles depending on driving conditions, with smallish electric motors producing about 115 horsepower. Both were shortly discontinued, however, and the pure electric pickup market has been dormant ever since aside from EV conversion enthusiasts.
Plug-in hybrid pickups made a brief appearance starting in 2010 as Dodge deployed a fleet of 109 plug-in hybrid Ram pickups for testing across the United States. Featuring a 12-kWh battery and nearly 20 miles of all-electric range, the trucks managed a collective 37 mpg over 1.3 million test miles. Three of the pickups experienced battery overheating issues, however, and all the trucks were pulled from the roads. Since then we haven’t seen much activity on the plug-in pickup front from Chrysler.
Currently, VIA Motors is carrying the dim torch along the plug-in pickup journey. The company spearheaded by Volt boss Bob Lutz converts GM vans and Silverado pickups to plug-in hybrid variants.
The pickup version, known as the VTrux, is a series hybrid powered by a 254-hp electric motor capable of delivering 306 lb-ft of torque. After the 40 miles of all-electric range is exhausted the 4.3L V6 gasoline engine kicks in to recharge the 23-kWh lithium ion battery pack. A useful feature is the 120V and 240V onboard outlets for portable electricity on the job site. It also boasts a 1,400 pound payload capacity and can tow up to 4,100 pounds.
VIA claims 100 miles per gallon, if the truck is driven 50 miles per day – 40 on electricity and 10 on gasoline. The company estimates fuel economy of 30 mpg in range-extended mode. Consumer Reports drove the VTrux recently and gave it an overall thumbs-up, an important endorsement for a fledgling company.
The asterisk that comes with the VIA is that it costs nearly $80,000. It makes a shaky case for economic sense for fleet managers in reduced ownership costs over the life of the vehicle, but the starting price is presently far too high for it to be worthy of consideration for most. The company’s assembly facility in Mexico is also limited in capacity to 10,000 units per year.
That brings us to the future, and any discussion of an electric future is of course not complete without Tesla Motors. The Palo Alto upstarts are preoccupied with the launch of the Model X SUV and the high-volume Generation III vehicle, but CEO Elon Musk has indicated more than once that Tesla may like to take on a pickup as its next major project.
If that happens, expect 200 miles of range and a truck that is closer in size to a Toyota Tacoma than a Tundra. Tesla will be able to reduce battery costs and also could lower the price, particularly for fleet owners, by offering just the basics. The price is critical because even with rock-bottom operating costs, an overly expensive pickup would be a huge deterrent for fleet buyers. Consumers may be a different story, however.
The big players in the truck market may be working on electric pickups as we speak, but if they are we won’t see them in the hands of consumers for quite a while. Some are developing hybrid versions without a plug while others focus on less radical methods of improving fuel efficiency. Any gains in efficiency for the full-size truck segment will have an enormous effect on transportation sector emissions, but there is so much potential for plug-in pickups that it would be a shame if no major automaker steps up to the plate.