Last week Ford and Toyota announced a partnership that could lead to hybridized F-Series pickups later this decade, but another alliance made last week could see extended-range F-Series conversions using A123 batteries as soon as next year.

In this case, the deal is less a partnership of convenience, and more one of necessity between aftermarket start-up ALTe and A123 Systems which will supply batteries for range-extended electric vehicle (REEV) light-duty truck upgrades (A.K.A. REEP – "P" for "powertrain").

When we last reported on ALTe, it was looking at testing its fleet application F-150-based mules, and had not disclosed a few of its key suppliers. For the time being, it was using a Ford four-cylinder, and a top-drawer battery maker was hinted at.

ALTe F-150-based test mule. One of many potential permutations.

As of Thursday last week, it was official. The top-drawer battery maker is a reality, as A123 and ALTe have signed a long-term contract for 21.6 kwh – and possibly other – battery packs.

“We believe that ALTe’s innovative powertrain systems will enable organizations to cost-effectively hybridize their fleets of light trucks to realize the significant economic, environmental and operational benefits of electrification,” said Jason Forcier, vice president of A123’s Automotive Solutions Group. “We consider our Nanophosphate lithium ion battery packs to be optimal for this application, and look forward to a long-term relationship with ALTe helping its customers realize the fuel economy improvements and total cost of ownership advantages that electrification offers over trucks with conventional powertrains.”

ALTe's series hybrid conversions should be a solid package. Its four-cylinder engine supplier has yet to be disclosed, but is thought to be a quality maker, which we will get to momentarily. ALTe is otherwise attempting to build on a strong foundation by starting with one of the most popular trucks sold, and powering it with some of the best batteries made.

“We selected A123 Systems as a primary supplier of lithium ion battery technology because the company’s cost-competitive, high-quality solutions meet the rigorous performance, safety and durability needs of our powertrain platform,” said ALTe CEO John Thomas. “With A123’s battery packs as an integral part of our systems, we will be able to provide a compelling hybrid retrofit solution that can exceed both the power and efficiency demands of the fleet market.”

Rolling chassis explained.

ALTe says the A123 battery pack can be charged within eight hours from a 120-volt outlet or in about four hours from a 240-volt outlet

As is the case with the test mule, the system is expected to provide an initial 30 miles of driving in all-electric mode, and an estimated additional 270 miles in a charge-sustained mode before the vehicle would need to be either refueled or plugged in.

Cargo and towing capacity are not greatly diminished compared to the removed V8, but they are a little.

Since this is an Achilles heel for a work truck that other major manufacturers have had to try and overcome, we asked a few more questions of ALTe’s CEO, John D. Thomas.


GM-Volt: How does this EREV system manage to maintain similar towing capacity? Didn't GM have to go to a two-mode hybrid system and it still reduces capacity?

Thomas: It all comes down to the definition of similar. ALTe has a roughly 1,500 pound reduced towing capacity when compared to the 5.4-liter V8 engine it is replacing. So, we can tow a 6,000 pound trailer up a mountain road with a reasonably full crew cab and payload in the bed at 55 mph up the steepest highway grades in the US. We accomplish this with our hybrid control system management and charge depletion anticipation.

GM-Volt: Originally the talk was of an F-150-based conversion. Will you do Dodge, GM and import conversions as well? How about vans, or larger bodied vehicles? How will prices vary?

Thomas: ALTe will initially be targeting to retrofit Ford branded pickup trucks (F-Series) and full size vans (Econoline), but eventually the company plans to retrofit other brands as well. Longer term, ALTe is involved in discussions with various OEMs regarding the inclusion of an ALTe PHEV powertrain in new vehicle platforms.

Because of the modularity or "plug n play" configuration of the ALTe powertrains, pricing will be very consistent between brands. There will be modest price increases as ALTe powertrains increase in size (e.g., larger engine, more battery, etc.) for larger vehicles (i.e., more content for a 14,000 GVW vehicle compared with an 8,500 lv vehicle).

ALTe will enter the market initially with a common configuration for light trucks/vans up to 14,000 GVW. Eventually, ALTe will offer a larger powertrain for trucks/vans up to 26,000 GVW and also have the ability to offer customers various options that could increase electric miles and/or range and/or other performance specifications.

GM-Volt: Is this system superior?

Thomas: By definition, if we have a higher curb weight and reduced towing capability, we cannot honestly call our system superior. What we have devised is a system that meets the reasonable needs of our customers, not the most extreme 1 percentile cases.

ALTe CEO John D. Thomas.

GM-Volt: How much less is towing and cargo capacity compared to a comparable V8 truck?

Thomas: Essentially answered in first question, but at full GVWR we have a 1,500 pound reduced towing capacity at full payload

GM-Volt: How different is the EREV system from that in the Volt? How does it differ?

Thomas: On the surface, all series PHEV systems are similar in architecture. The differences arise in the specific details of component and system sizing, duty cycle and utilization optimization, power flows, tolerance for limits, thermal management, accessory drives, etc. Beyond that, we would get into some of our intellectual property related to the hybrid control unit, multimodes, battery management system, predictive algorithms, etc., which we are not going to speak about publicly.

GM-Volt: Is level 2 and 3 charging being encouraged?

Thomas: Yes to both

GM-Volt: What specific four-cylinder engine will be used?

Thomas: We have a commercial deal in place with a major automaker where two different engines are available for our use a 2.0 liter and a 2.5 liter. Other deals with other engine manufacturers are in discussion on an international level.

GM-Volt: Isn't this a rather modest sized battery (21.6 kwh)?

Thomas: It is “right sized" – for the duty cycles our target customers are driving. We scale up or down depending on customers' different desires for a quantity of plug in derived electric miles.

GM-Volt: How many configurations (2X4, 4X4, club cab, etc.) will be offered?

Thomas: The permutations are dazzling when all factors are considered, but at a high level we will start with 2X4 and all cab versions other than the short wheel base and expand a few months later to offer a 4x4 version.

GM-Volt: As we understand it, the REEP conversion retains the functional transmission (which can even be rebuilt)?

Thomas: ALTe’s original business model and technology assumed that the powertrain conversion would retain the original transmission. During discussions with our Customer Advisory Board, we received overwhelming feedback that fleet customers would much rather pay an additional cost for a new or refurbished transmission that would be included as part of ALTe’s overall powertrain warranty. As ALTe’s technology will be extending the life of a vehicle including a new powertrain system, customers determined that the “weakest link” would be the old transmission so they expressed a strong preference for a new/refurbished one.

GM-Volt: Is this not a unique development – using a conventional automatic (or manual?) transmission – in a series hybrid?

Thomas: Yes, ALTe has indeed created a novel approach on how to salvage and utilize a very robust traditional transmission by incorporating a few external features. We are trying to leverage existing technology where possible for cost and time to market reasons. In the future, we envision a more custom designed solution which we have under development.

GM-Volt: Is the retention of the transmission an advantage? If so, how? (Power delivery, speed, economy, all?)

Thomas: The retention of the transmission has very practical advantages: it already packages and bolts to the vehicle, it has a proven gear set to move the vehicle at full load, it minimizes tooling investment and ultimately is affordable for our customers.

Rolling chassis.

GM-Volt: Are there any intentions to offer this system for automobiles as well?

Thomas: As GM and Fisker know, it is very hard to package all of the elements of two powertrain systems in an automobile without some kind of passenger or cargo volume compromise. We may be offering micro versions of our powertrain in the future for OEMs that will work with us to build the vehicle around the powertrain vs. shoehorning it in an existing platform.

GM-Volt: What will be pricing for the vehicles?

Thomas: The cost of retrofitting a full size pickup to ALTe's REEV powertrain is projected to be under $30,000 and offset quickly by fuel savings in fleet vehicles that typically are driven many more miles annually when compared with an average individual or retail customer. The "payback" can be as short as one year depending primarily on the number of miles driven and the projected cost of gasoline. The price of the ALTe powertrain is projected to decline significantly over the next several years as demand for lithium ion batteries increases and corresponding battery costs decline.

GM-Volt: In doing the REEP conversions, who keeps the old parts (like the V8 engine, etc.)?

Thomas: As part of the transaction with the fleet customer, ALTe will retain possession of old/removed components. We are working with several companies on the disposal process for these parts, nearly all of which we believe will be able to be recycled or sold to repair/salvage shops and dealers.

High hopes

ALTe has also said it wishes to establish itself as an OEM solutions provider for other established automakers, so no doubt it will attempt to hit the ground running.

The company expects to begin accepting purchase orders by the end of 2011 and plans to start installing its electric powertrain systems in summer 2012.