Plug-in hybrid trucks promise big fuel savings

We get behind the wheels of Via Motors VTrux and Alt-e Technologies one-ton truck

Published: June 09, 2014 10:30 AM

Running a big truck on electricity can save a lot more gas than making a switch to electric with a small car. That’s the philosophy behind Via Motors’ plug-in hybrid pickup truck. We’ve praised the theory before, but never had a chance to try one of their electric workhorses on the road. Until now.

We drove a converted Chevrolet Silverado at the Electric Drive Transportation Association meeting in Indianapolis recently, when we caught up with Mark Burdge, vice president of sales and business development for Via Motors.

As you might expect, the VTrux drives a lot like the Silverado on which it’s based. The Silverado is pretty quiet and smooth, but the VTrux takes that to a whole new level with a claimed 40-mile range on electric power before it needs to start its gas engine to generate more power.

That gas engine is the smallest available in a Silverado—a 4.3-liter V6—even though Via Motors will launch this product by building the biggest, heaviest version of the VTrux, a four-wheel-drive crew cab. Two-wheel-drive and standard cab versions will follow later. And the VTrux will be available outfitted with just about any option available on the Silverado, except of course its big engines.

Like the Chevrolet Volt—a serious plug-in hybrid—VTrux has no conventional transmission, and the gasoline V6 acts only as a generator.

We specifically asked Burdge to let us try driving in charge-sustaining mode, that is, with the engine on as if the battery charge were exhausted. The company plans to make this mode available to consumers in final production trucks, but it is working with EPA and the California Air Resources Board to allow it. With the engine running, the VTrux is still quieter than a typical Silverado. The unobtrusive engine doesn’t rev up hard and remains almost inaudible.

Acceleration is smooth and quiet. It feels quick enough, but it’s no speed demon and may not be as quick as the V8-powered Silverado we tested. It doesn’t really need to be. With an extra 1,500 pounds aboard in its 22-kWh battery pack, no one will call the VTrux nimble, but neither is the Silverado. We mainly drove on arrow-straight roads in gridlike downtown Indianapolis. Despite the additional battery weight, the VTrux maintains 1,800 pounds of cargo capacity.

Charging should take 8 to 10 hours on a 240-volt charger. Conveniently, the VTrux can serve as a generator at a job  site or during a blackout. A series of generator outlets on the side of the truck bed supplies 10 kW of power at up to 50 amps.

An Alte-e alternative

Via isn’t the only manufacturer developing plug-in hybrid trucks. In Indianapolis, we also drove a one-ton box truck converted to a plug-in hybrid by Alt-e Technologies. This big truck runs a relatively tiny 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine from the Ford Focus. Alt-e claims a 22-mile electric range from the truck’s 22-kWh lithium-ion battery pack. The end result: It drives, well, pretty much like a truck. This plug-in drivetrain feels less developed than Via’s, but the company hasn’t been in business as long. Where the VTrux’s gas engine runs just a little above idle and ramps up when power is needed, the Alt-e’s comes on and off like a switch, running at its torque peak. Since the engine sits partly in the cab, it can get loud inside. Among possible applications for this conversion could be airport shuttle vans such as those ferrying passengers between the terminal and car-rental places.

Alt-e is also developing a plug-in hybrid version of the Ford F-150 pickup with this engine, which may even have bigger potential.

Both trucks promise intriguing options for commercial users looking to reduce fuel consumption.

Eric Evarts

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