Luke Ottaway's picture

Is there a future for electric pickup trucks?

The electrification movement has largely ignored the segment that arguably needs it the most: pickup trucks. With one notable exception, we still won’t be seeing electric pickups on the road for some time.

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 past

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.

The present

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.

The future

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.

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Trucks are not a great target for electrification as they now stand. They weigh too much and have the aerodynamics of a brick. Why change out the drivetrain without addressing these fundamentals of physics? Most people who buy trucks and SUVs drive them like cars, rarely if ever using their carrying or off-road capabilities. It is an excess only seen here in the States. What we should be driving is much more efficient, purpose-built vehicles. Vehicles with only one person in them 90% of the time should be one-seaters. 100 years from now, kids in grade school will laugh at the silly people of our time using 8,000 pound vehicles to transport one 150 pound person. We spend almost all our energy moving the vehicle, not the person. We should use electricity to power our vehicles, but not stupidly heavy vehicles.
I totally agree with you, Steve...unfortunately, it would require a near-miraculous paradigm shift for Americans to realize the foolishness of driving trucks as everyday vehicles, if they are not used for their intended purpose. Since this is highly unlikely for the foreseeable future, the next best thing is to make those trucks more efficient. You do have a point about the weight and aerodynamics, however.
"to realize the foolishness of driving trucks as everyday vehicles" When trucks typically get as good gas mileage of most cars 5-10 years ago and given the incredible expense of an extra vehicle with little to no benefit, it is foolish to not drive trucks as everyday vehicles if one already owns one and has a use for it.
I admit that, as a pickup owner, I often do use my truck for shopping or taking the family for a drive. But I also need to use it for work, hauling, taking the trash to the dump, lots of things I couldn't feasibly do in a car. I can't really afford to keep two vehicles, and it's a matter of the truck doing so many things that a car can't, out here in the country. If an EV truck was just the uninspired gas burner clone with a 40 mile range that VIA's making in some sort of partnership with GM, it wouldn't make any sense to buy one. However, an electric powered truck doesn't have to just be a clone of a gas burner. Without the need for a conventional motor, transmission and power train, pickups can and should be totally re-designed. 1. The curb weight can be reduced, which would be offset by the weight of the batteries. An 85 kwh lithium battery pack like the ones in a Tesla weighs about 1,500 pounds, and a truck with a 300 mile range would need two packs, so that's 3,000 pounds right there. Add another 250 lbs for the motor, and 50 for a 2-speed transaxle to replace the gas burner's transmission, and you've got a lot of weight, so a lot of heavy iron would have to be replaced by forged aluminum. 2. I can see replacing the conventional cab with a van-like cab to further reduce weight, since the electric motor can be mounted directly to the transaxle. 3. There isn't a reason, from an engineering perspective, to make an EV truck with the aerodynamics of a brick. If you just move the electric motor from the front toward the back, battery packs can be made to fit practically any design that the artists and engineers can come up with. It's just a matter of distributing the weight of the battery packs so that the truck's weight is balanced. Unlike a gas engine, the batteries in a pack are modular; the pack can be any shape or size you need. 4. You may only see one person in a pickup when its owner is going to work, hauling a load of trash to the dump, picking up lumber from Lowe's, etc. but they often have to carry the wife and kids, so a one-seater truck wouldn't be practical. That's why there are so many extended cabs. The cab doesn't have to weigh a lot, if you just replace all that iron with forged aluminum. A truck seat doesn't have to weigh 150 pounds to be safe and functional. Just get rid of all that iron and replace it with forged aluminum; a 30 pound seat can be as safe and functional as those iron monstrosities. 5. $80,000 for a VIA truck with a 40 mile range and 23 kwh battery seems pretty high; there has to be a MASSIVE mark-up. Tesla offers its customers an 85 kwh battery for $12,000. Just 1/4 of the battery size should cost about 1/4 as much, so that's about $3,000 they're paying for the battery pack. A Warp 11 HV electric motor, which seems to be the engine of choice for amateurs, sells for about $3,200 on eBay. I just can't see how this translates into an $80,000 price tag for an electric truck with just a 40 mile range. For that matter, I would think a plug-in electric truck with a 300 mile range (2 x 85 kwh batteries equals nearly 8 times the battery power, and 8 times the range of the VIA truck) shouldn't cost much more than a comparable gas burner (about $45,000 for a F-150). Actual manufacturing costs should be about: 2 x 85 kwh batteries = $24,000 + $3,200 engine + $3,000 misc. electrical + $10,000 body. Not a lot of room for dealer markup, but a 300 mile range would actually be functional, unlike the 40-mile range truck that VIA's making for GM, and should be in the $50,000 range if it was mass produced.
you can keep the transmission. Use a plate to mount the AC 3phase electric motor. getting enough torque for torque is an issue to focus on
Tesla has also commented on the value of fleet vehicles. The new Model X is AWD and very aerodynamic. If they offered a stripped down version (no 2nd or 3rd row seats) it would be quite a muilti-use panel van with 250 mile range.
What about mentioning motiv power systems that has already delivered electric school bus and garbage truck?
The reasons are well known. An electric pickup truck had to be designed from the ground up, and the current list of drive lines lacks the economy and low end torque to carry a truck. Until no. EV Fleet, Inc. is launching a new half-ton truck on September 158th. Without rebates, it can be purchased for less than $50k. Reducing the operating cost from $0.21 per mile to $0.02 with 0-60 and top speed performance that would humble a V-6, the new Condor is the ticket for local work vehicles.
I reassured the local Chevy Truck dealer that the biggest load haulers are electric ! . Guess yet ? Traction motors are electric on modern train locomotives