Passenger cars have been generating much of the buzz around electrified transportation, but automakers are changing that with a suite of new electrified trucks, vans and sport utility vehicles that could soon hit the market.
"Whether it's an advanced drive vehicle of any sort -- a hybrid, a plug-in hybrid or an electric vehicle (EV) -- the manufacturers are taking it seriously, and they understand it as a growing market," said Jeremy Acevedo, analyst at the automotive research website Edmunds.com. "I think it's something that's easy for consumers to get behind when they see their brand throwing out legitimate offerings into that segment," he said.
Automakers both big and small delivered last week at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit with the launch of several electrified products on larger platforms.
Via Motors, a company backed by former General Motors Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, unveiled four extended-range electric work vehicles at NAIAS that it says can get more than 100 mpg in regular driving conditions. Like GM's Chevrolet Volt, Via's lineup of plug-in vehicles can travel about 40 miles in all-electric mode before switching to a hybrid setting, which improves fuel economy by 2 to 4 mpg over a gasoline alternative.
In Detroit, Via Motors launched a first-of-its-kind luxury SUV, cargo and passenger vans, and a high-performance pickup truck. The new XTRUX pickup features 4-wheel drive, immense torque and up to 800 horsepower, "and yet it has the fuel economy that makes a Prius look like a gas guzzler," said Lutz in a promotional video.
Verizon and Pacific Gas and Electric Corp. have already invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in advance orders of Via's products, which are currently only available to consumers on lease. "Our vehicles were customer-driven," said David West, spokesman for Via Motors, in an interview. "These guys put down big money just to say if you build it, we will buy."
An electrifying rationale
There's been a charged debate in recent years on whether or not hybrid and electric passenger cars are succeeding in the marketplace due to their relatively low sales figures. So one might ask, why bring these powertrains to larger vehicles?
For Via, it is because they see greater economic and environmental paybacks coming from electrifying gas-hungry vehicles over smaller compact cars. "If you only save a little bit of gas, you only save a little bit of money and you only save a little bit of clean air," West said.
Electrification will also have greater benefits when applied to popular vehicles that don't require people to compromise on their wants and needs, he said. "A lot of people don't know it, but the No. 1 selling vehicle in the United States isn't a [Toyota] Camry or a small sedan; it's a pickup truck."
Catering to a North American audience, Volkswagen announced its CrossBlue concept SUV at NAIAS last week, which seeks to marry utility with efficiency. The diesel plug-in hybrid can run in all-electric mode for 14 miles with an estimated fuel economy of 89 mpg equivalent and can achieve 35 mpg as a hybrid, which a comparable gasoline-powered SUV would be hard-pressed to beat.
The driver can select to run on zero emissions mode at the press of a button, or else the CrossBlue will automatically shift between hybrid and all-electric modes during braking, acceleration and coasting to maximize fuel efficiency. The SUV also offers the safety and entertainment features a family would want with the space to seat seven.
"We see from predictions that one of the biggest growth areas in the market in the next five or six years are midsize crossover SUVs," said Mark Gillies, spokesman for Volkswagen of America. "And if you look at America as a market, people like bigger vehicles. It's as simple as that."