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Large Vehicles Begin Shift to Electric Drive

Electric motors are not just for cars anymore but now appear in trucks, vans and sport utility vehicles
Plug In Electric truck in Charlotte, NC.



Flickr/ajmexico

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."

Tesla Motors, which featured its futuristic all-electric SUV, the Model X, in Detroit, has made giving consumers both what they want and what they need the linchpin of its business strategy, according to spokeswoman Christina Ra. Tesla's all-electric luxury sedan, the Model S, was named the 2013 Motor Trend Car of the Year. And the company is taking the same "no compromises" approach with the seven-passenger Model X, she said.

"To truly accelerate adoption [of electric vehicles], we believe we must create compelling vehicles, period. Not compelling electric vehicles, but compelling vehicles that are powered by electricity. No compromises -- in fact, in many ways, better than other vehicles that are available," said Ra.

Large cars that don't guzzle
Larger hybrid vehicles aren't an entirely new concept. In 2005, Toyota Motor Corp. launched a hybrid gasoline-electric version of the Lexus RX SUV, and it continues to regularly sell more than 1,000 units per month, according to Edmunds.

Ford Motor Co. also used to offer a hybrid version of the Ford Escape SUV but discontinued it with the launch of the gasoline-electric C-MAX compact car, which has sold more than 4,000 units per month since its launch last October. Acevedo said the C-MAX's success is a good indication that larger vehicles in the hybrid space can also expect to perform well on the market.

"The fact that [the C-MAX] is a vehicle specifically designed to provide large-car utility means it certainly makes sense that moving up to a full-size SUV and taking electrified technology to those vehicles is something that consumers are looking for," he said.

To tap into that demand, Nissan Motor Co. unveiled the Nissan Resonance in Detroit -- a hybrid SUV concept car that draws on the company's vast experience in making electric passenger vehicles like the Nissan Leaf. The Resonance also features Nissan's next-generation Xtronic CVT (continuously variable transmission) that maximizes power and mileage by allowing the engine to run in the most efficient gear ratio.

The Resonance is not a plug-in vehicle, but it nonetheless pushes the limits of fuel economy in the SUV class, which will help bridge the gap in consumer acceptance of electrified vehicles, while also helping automakers make inroads toward the mandated 54.5 mpg fuel economy target by 2025.

"EVs will certainly help to boost every manufacturer's corporate average fuel economy, plug-in hybrids similarly. And, of course, vehicles such as midsize [gasoline-powered] sedans like the Altima getting 38 mpg today, and you can imagine what the trajectory is for those vehicles," said Michael Bunce, director of product planning for large sedans and crossovers at Nissan. "But we can't exclude the full-size crossover; every vehicle is going to have to contribute to the 54.5 mpg target."

'Climate change is real'
To achieve better fuel economy, automakers are not only bringing hybrid and full-electric powertrains to bigger vehicles, they are optimizing the vehicles themselves.

It is impossible to miss the bold aerodynamic frame of the Nissan Resonance, while other efficient design features are less obvious. Ford, for instance, will offer improved fuel economy of more than 2 mpg on its new Atlas Concept pickup truck featured in Detroit last week with a combination of what the company calls "active aerodynamic elements."

These features include a drop-down front wind spoiler and grille and wheel shutters that automatically engage at highway speeds to improve airflow around the vehicle. The truck also contains Ford's next-generation EcoBoost engine and start-stop technology, which saves fuel by shutting off the engine while the vehicle is stopped. The feature automatically turns off when the truck is towing.

During a webcast held at the Auto Show, John Viera, global director of sustainability and vehicle environmental matters at Ford, acknowledged the threat of climate change and Ford's role in addressing it. "Climate change is real, man has an impact on addressing climate change, and we as a company need to do something about it," he said.

But, he added, simply making more EVs isn't the most productive way Ford can contribute to the solution. Rather, the company needs to improve its entire fleet and especially its best-selling internal combustion engine vehicles, so that it can have a greater impact overall.

At the Detroit auto show, popular trucks, SUVs and luxury vehicles outnumbered high-mileage compact cars, but all vehicle types showed progress toward going green, noted Edmunds' Acevedo. Even the new 2014 Corvette C7 muscle car conserves fuel by switching down from eight cylinders to four on the highway.

"If you're a manufacturer that's not doing it, you're kind of on the outside looking in," he said.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500

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