Translogic recently attended a convention in Detroit, called "The Business of Plugging In." The event brought dozens of business and hundreds of industry leaders together in one place to discuss the emerging electric vehicle industry. The potential irony of an EV convention being held in Detroit did not escape us.

Along with presentations, technical seminars and panel discussions, the convention hosted an on-site driving event. More than a dozen EVs were available, a range of rides that represented most segments of the existing American automotive fleet, all types of vehicles to satisfy all types of driving wants and needs. Vehicles queued for the drive course included full-size pickups, compact SUVs, delivery vans, sedans, coupes, and even a sports car.

EVs are likely to be quickly adopted by business fleets (delivery vehicles, maintenance vehicles, etc.) because fleet operators focus more on vehicle ownership costs over the vehicle's lifetime than individual consumers tend to. Looked at as a business decision that factors in dozens or hundreds of vehicles, EVs can provide companies with dramatic transportation cost savings. Businesses also have a really good idea of just how far their vehicles need to travel in the course of a given day, meaning that "range anxiety" is less of an issue than it is for most consumers.

Ford was well represented, with an electric version of the Transit Connect, as well as two conversions of the F-150, from Protean Electric and Alt-e. The two pickups couldn't have been more different. Both boasted gasoline-like payload and towing performance, but achieved the results in completely different ways.

The Protean Electric ran with sophisticated and exceptionally efficient in-wheel hub motors. When we opened the F-150's hood we were surprised by a whole lot of empty space, as the stock V8 engine was removed. The electric drive motors are packaged behind the wheels, so the engine bay is basically open. Batteries are housed between the truck's rear frame rails under the bed. The truck is designed as rolling proof-of-concept for Protean's disc-like motors to show how they can fit on existing vehicles, providing fleet operators with an EV-retrofit alternative to purchasing new gasoline-powered vehicles.

  • Image Credit: BPI
  • Image Credit: Rex Roy
  • Image Credit: Rex Roy
  • Image Credit: Rex Roy
  • Image Credit: Rex Roy
  • Image Credit: Rex Roy
  • Image Credit: Rex Roy
  • Image Credit: BPI
  • Image Credit: BPI

The team from Alt-e took a different approach to the pickup truck retrofit idea. Opening the hood of their F-150 revealed the engine from a Ford Focus, but it's not connected to the wheels. The 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine only runs a generator. This range-extender turns on when the truck's plug-in-rechargeable batteries have been depleted. Battery-only range is approximately 40 miles. Power goes directly to tandem-mounted electric motors, which connect to the truck's original transmission and drivetrain. Alt-e estimates that their truck conversion could save a company as much as $20,000 in fuel, maintenance and acquisition costs compared to buying a new gasoline-fueled truck over a 75,000 mile life span.

Cost is the big driver for fleet customers, but it is only one of many factors driving the purchase decision for individual consumers. In general, conversions don't make as much sense for the average driver, but these fleet-oriented vehicles will help pave the way toward a nationwide rollout for EVs. The consumer-oriented vehicles at the BPI event included the Mini E, Smart Fortwo Electric Drive, Ford Focus EV, and a plug-in variant of the Ford Escape Hybrid.

These more mainstream vehicles represent a consumer-friendly path forward by demonstrating that EVs can be developed cost effectively from conventional models. Translogic had previous experience with most of these vehicles, so we focused our attention on an intriguing Chevrolet Equinox conversion from Amp.

The team from Amp narrowly missed the X Prize finals, where it campaigned a pure-electric Saturn Sky roadster that achieved nearly 100 mpg equivalent in the competition. Their 2010 Equinox five-passenger SUV used the same lithium iron phosphate battery technology as the X Prize Sky and drove with a high degree of polish. It was a practical EV (120-mile range, 90-mph top speed) that operated with such ease that it seemed completely normal. Such can be the wonder of a well-engineered and technically sophisticated machine.

Amp wants to build conversion vehicles (like the Sky or Equinox) or partner with a vehicle manufacturer on a completely new project.

The BPI demo fleet also included a Tesla Roadster, a plug-in Toyota Prius, and examples of the just-introduced Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf. These vehicles rounded out a field that offered something for nearly every driver.

The reality is that this range of vehicle choice is absolutely necessary for EVs to catch on big. The showing at BPI, in the heart of Detroit, shows that things are moving forward.

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