Photos courtesy of VIA Motors. PG&E has been testing the plug-in hybrid pickups and is likely to make additional purchases to the four vehicles already in fleet.

Photos courtesy of VIA Motors.
PG&E has been testing the plug-in hybrid pickups and is likely to make additional purchases to the four vehicles already in fleet.

California-based Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) has tested VIA Motors’ battery-electric trucks and vans, and has committed to purchasing several hundred of the vehicles, when production ramps up later this year.

Utah-based VIA Motors is a relative newcomer to the vehicle modifier market, and offers extended-range hybrid electric versions of familiar fleet vehicles. VIA plans to offer a modified plug-in Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck and Chevrolet Express van. If all goes well, VIA could eventually produce an electrified full-size SUV.

The privately held company is finalizing regulatory approvals with the California Air Resources Board before it expands production of the VIA VTRUX 4WD 4D crew cab pickup truck and 3/4 ton passenger and cargo vans. The company has set up a factory in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, near the Silao Assembly plant where General Motors assembles the Chevrolet Silverado.

That testing should lead to additional purchases by Dave Meisel, PG&E’s senior director of transportation and aviation services, who said he has been impressed by the fuel savings and emissions reductions the vehicles provide. Meisel has been running VIA test units for about two years, and now has four VIA Silverado-based trucks in the fleet.

“We love the idea of plug-in trucks because of the emissions improvements and reduced operating costs,” Meisel said. “We have thousands of pickups and our plug-ins have shown operating costs as much as 70-percent lower than standard pickups.”

The pickups operate in all-electric mode for a 40-mile range, then rely on the generator-powered gasoline engine to extend the range to 400 miles, said David West, VIA’s chief marketing officer. A full charge from a standard 110-volt wall outlet takes about eight hours. Charging the vehicles on a 220-volt outlet cuts that to four hours, and an AC fast charger from VIA, which costs $800, provides a full charge in one hour.

Verizon has purchased eight of the VIA Motors plug-in hybrid vans, which can operate in all-electric mode for a 40-mile range.

Verizon has purchased eight of the VIA Motors plug-in hybrid vans, which can operate in all-electric mode for a 40-mile range.

Like the VIA pickups, the modified Chevrolet Express cargo vans can operate in all-electric mode for 40 miles using advanced lithium ion batteries. An onboard electric generator provides power to the gasoline engine, giving the vans a full range of about 300 miles.

Telecommunications provider Verizon will be testing eight of the plug-in hybrid vans. Kenneth Jack, Verizon's vice president of fleet operations, said he's eager to add additional vans to his fleet, and that they will be testing them in California, New Jersey, New York, and Washington, D.C.

Lowering Vehicle TCO

The total operating cost of the VIA vehicles is much lower in part because of the significant fuel savings, fewer moving parts, including no transmission, and fewer maintenance intervals. Meisel manages 14,000 vehicles, including 9,500 on-road vehicles of which about 3,400 are powered by an alternative-fuel system. He purchases about 500 pickups each year.

“We’re planning to add more VIA pickups,” Meisel said. “For electric utilities, it’s a bread-and-butter vehicle.”

The VIA trucks tested by Meisel return nearly 100 miles per gallon under normal operating conditions, and deliver 24 miles per gallon when operating in gasoline mode. Traditional pickup trucks provide 13 mpg. The annual growth rate of fuel prices over the past 12 years has been 7.5 percent, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

“From a budgeting perspective, I can’t raise rates 7.5 percent per year,” Meisel said. “From a business perspective, I can’t afford 7.5 percent a year.”

VIA retains the Ecotec six-cylinder engine offered in the pickup trucks which utilizes GM’s variable cylinder technology running on all six cylinders or only four cylinders as needed to generate electricity. The extended range is 350 - 400 miles in the truck (using the truck’s 15 gallon gasoline tank) according to VIA.

VIA Motors has been committed to fleet from the beginning, most notably when it announced at the 2013 Los Angeles Auto Show that it had signed a $20-million contract administered with the South Coast Air Quality Management District to produce vehicles for more than 50 fleets.

This article originally appeared in Green Fleet Magazine.

Originally posted on Work Truck Online

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