Bright IDEA PHEV - Click above for high-res image gallery

The concepts that went into the Bright IDEA – a lightweight plug-in hybrid that serves a specific and large population – look great on paper. The vehicle itself, though, has never really looked all that good in the pictures we've seen. This week, during the Business of Plugging In conference, we had a chance to see and drive the IDEA plug-in hybrid ourselves, we can say that it's much better in person than any numbers or pictures can suggest. We've written in detail about Bright Automotive's business plan for the IDEA (read that post here), so it's time to dig into what this vehicle looks, acts and drives like. Most important, now that we've seen the IDEA up close, we have a better idea what it could do for fleets looking to curb their fuel usage. Follow us past the jump to find out more.

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[Source: Bright Automotive]


Designed for fleet customers – the types who have for long relied on those heavy, white-paneled vans – the IDEA sports two important numbers: a 40-mile all-electric range and almost 40 mpg once the battery is depleted and the powertrain shifts to charge sustaining mode. The EV range was, until this week, limited to 30 miles, but Bright put in a new 13 kWh battery pack, which has the side benefit of qualifying the vehicle for a higher PHEV tax credit from the federal government. Bright has calculated that each IDEA using the new pack will save government operators "18 cents per mile, reduce gasoline use by 1,500 gallons per year, and reduce CO2 emissions by 16 tons per year."

Pure Practicality

The fuel savings are just part of the IDEA, though. From the very beginning, the van was designed with input from fleet operators and drivers. The functionality that fleets need was paired with the lightweight mentality of RMI's Hypercar, which shares at least a little DNA with the IDEA and resulted in the asymmetrical rear doors, a built-in bulkhead and a passenger seat that doesn't move and can turn into a desk. The seat also offers third, walk-through position that gives the driver easy access to the sidewalk without needing to exit the vehicle on the traffic side. Also, since the passenger seat does not adjust forward or backward, the passenger airbag could be simpler. It's somewhat astonishing how much mileage the engineers could squeeze out of dozens (probably hundreds) of little changes compared to traditional fleet vehicles.

While the passenger seat doesn't move, it does transform. Bright found through customer research these vans would probably be used by only one person about 90 percent of the time, so the seat was not made very comfortable (it only needed to be as soft as sitting on a milk crate, was the design mantra. It's much softer than that). When there's no passenger, the driver can use the second seat as a work station complete with electrical outlets (AC and DC), cup holders and a sliding file cabinet.




The asymmetrical rear doors were designed because Bright discovered that drivers spent a lot of time opening and closing both rear doors on a standard work van to retrieve objects that were just a bit wider than a single door. The designers realized that if the right door was a bit wider, then drivers wouldn't need to swing open the left door as often, saving them time. Putting the split off to the left, then, will not only save time but is also safer, since the left door now does not stick out into traffic as much (about the same distance as the side mirror) and the top brake light can easily be placed in the center of the vehicle. The 36-inch side door is on hinges in this prototype – hinges are lighter than a sliding door – but they will be replaced by a sliding mechanism in the final version. Some things it just doesn't make sense to change.



Behind the seats sits a beautiful carbon fiber bulkhead. Right now, the bulkhead is a little too close to the windshield, cramping the cabin a bit. In the production version of the IDEA, the divider will be moved back a bit in response to user suggestions. While most delivery vans don't have a bulkhead built in, Bright engineers noticed that most delivery vans get one installed right away and so designed the IDEA to come with one standard. This single decision resulted in a lot of other, surprising benefits.

For one thing, the wall (which might not be carbon fiber in the production model), helps strengthen the vehicle and transfers crash loads better than not having a bulkhead. Also, by confining the driver cabin to just the two seats, the heating and cooling units don't need to work as hard and therefore can be smaller. The benefits mean that, by adding the bulkhead, the IDEA actually became lighter than it would be without that part.



How it drives

It's a little unfair to give a final – or even preliminary verdict – about the drive style of the IDEA. For one thing, this is a prototype model, and it was sprung pretty tightly. Secondly, we could only take it for a short spin around a parking lot full of speed bumps. Our five minutes behind the wheel proved that the van maneuvers well (at slow speeds at least), has a bit of pickup and is easy to see out of. Because of the bulkhead and lack of back windows, rear visibility is limited to mirrors and a backup camera. These work well, and the van doesn't feel unwieldy. It only weighs 3200 lbs, which helps keep it nimble.

In the prototype, the driver can select to put the IDEA into pure electric or standard hybrid mode. In the production version, this will most likely not be an option, and the van will try to remain in EV mode as long as the battery holds enough charge. Turning the hybrid mode on and flooring the gas pedal was an odd experience – the engine kicked in as we were moving and, since the engine sound was quite loud in the cabin, it sounded unlike any other hybrid we've driven. Hearing the ignition sound so powerfully at 10 or 15 mph is a bit unsettling. We assume this will be dampened or smoothed out before the IDEA heads for production in three or four years.

All this being said, it's obvious that this van will serve fleet operators well. It's easy to get in and out of the van. The design seems ridiculously practical, and the fuel economy savings will be appealing to people who count every penny – and even some who just think about saving money at the pump now and again.

Another test driver, Paul Scott, gave the IDEA a B+ and we agree with him. We look forward to seeing how the IDEA evolves from here, and expect many others will agree that the IDEA looks and performs better than paper suggests once they get the chance to see and drive it for themselves.


PRESS RELEASE:

Bright Automotive Announces Performance Upgrade for Revolutionary 100 MPG IDEA Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle

Bright IDEA Saves Fleet Customers Money,
Returns 40 Miles of Pure EV Range & Nearly 40 MPG in Hybrid Mode

ANDERSON, IN (October 20, 2009) – Bright Automotive, Inc. (www.brightautomotive.com) today announced new performance figures for the IDEA, its revolutionary plug-in hybrid electric commercial vehicle. The IDEA has been upgraded to deliver 40 miles of all electric range and nearly 40 MPG in standard hybrid mode. Each IDEA vehicle will save typical fleet and government operators 18 cents per mile, reduce gasoline use by 1,500 gallons per year, and reduce CO2 emissions by 16 tons per year.

Detailed calculations and assumptions are included below.

"The IDEA enables fleet owners to go even farther in EV mode, creating greater cost and environmental impact savings," said John E. Waters, CEO and President of Bright Automotive. "Congress and the Administration are demanding change in the auto industry. Bright Automotive is answering the nation's call by maximizing economic value for our customers through performance and sustainability, while applying the battery electric vehicle tax credits available under current federal policy."

The performance figures are the result of a new 13kwHr battery pack, which allows the IDEA to operate for 40 miles in charge depletion (EV) mode, and then switch to a class-leading 36 MPG (minimum) charge sustaining (standard hybrid) mode. For many fleet operators, the added EV range will allow them to operate almost entirely gasoline-free. The result: a fleet of 250,000 IDEAS will save 30 million tons of CO2 and 2.8 billion gallons of fuel over their 150,000-mile life-cycle.

"After speaking to major fleet operators and measuring how they use their vehicles, we modified the performance of the IDEA to better suit their needs and to save them even more money," said Waters. "The IDEA was created by listening to customers and developing innovative solutions to meet their needs - customers remain our top priority as we continue vehicle development."

In just over a year, Anderson, Indiana-based Bright Automotive developed the IDEA - a revolutionary multi-purpose, PHEV in the light truck classification aimed at commercial and government fleets. The IDEA, announced on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. last April, is 5 to 10 times more fuel efficient than current commercial fleet vehicles. Each IDEA will save a typical fleet customer more than 1,500 gallons of gasoline and thousands of dollars in fuel costs annually.

Bright Automotive has leveraged the industry's most experienced EV/PHEV team to develop the IDEA, a revolutionary, purpose-built, PHEV utility fleet vehicle. Bright Automotive CEO John E. Waters developed the battery pack for the General Motors EV1, while collectively, the Bright Automotive team has, previously in their careers, developed and launched close to 40 vehicle platforms.

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Assumptions

* Gas prices at $3.15/gallon in 2013 (U.S. Department of Energy estimate)
* Drive cycle of 80 miles/day, 5 days per week, 50 weeks/year = 20,000 miles/year
* Utilizes "LA92" drive cycle (considered most realistic EPA cycle – city/highway mixture)
* 150,000 miles vehicle life (equates to 7.5 years)
* Competitive comparisons based on weighted average volume of 2007 plus 2008 model year sales
* Fuel economy, range and vehicle performance numbers are based on an unladen vehicle
* Macro measures (CO2 and fuel savings) are based on a laden vehicle

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