An Auburn Hills, Mich. company is progressing toward a promising extended-range vehicle conversion for fleet applications, with aspirations also to partner with major manufacturers as an original equipment series hybrid solutions provider.

Some of you commented on ALTe’s F-150 conversion last year in the GM-Volt forum . More recently the company has announced it will conduct trials of a 2007 F-150-based prototype for several months beginning Spring 2012 with Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E).

ALTe's converted F-150 is to undergo trials with PG&E and other companies to helping it sharpen its act. The retrofit is being marketed to fleets, but interested retail customers will be welcome too.

To gain a clearer view, we contacted ALTe’s Vice President, Marketing & Sales, Dennis Baranik, and from what he says, the company has high hopes indeed.

With stricter Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) rules coming down the pike, ALTe already has a head start on a product that could dovetail with mandates, and the company is making strong industry alliances that are attracted to its business model and potential.

Among them, in April this year, ALTe announced it had reached a partnership with Manheim, a large automotive remarketing company, to do turnkey installations for fleet customers.

"With this partnership, ALTe’s fleet customers will be able to take their vehicle to a Manheim operating location and Manheim will retrofit their light trucks and vans with an ALTe series plug-in electric hybrid powertrain," a company info sheet said. "The fleet customer will then reinsert the vehicle back into its fleet and realize fuel economy improvements of up to 200 percent."

REEP Conversion

ALTe calls its iteration of its a series electric hybrid powertrain a Range Extended Electric Powertrain (REEP), and projects fuel efficiency improvements of at least 80 percent.

As it stands, ALTe’s conversion involves removal of the standard V8 engine from an F-Series pickup or Econoline van, and fitting it with a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder, naturally aspirated engine serving as a generator that does not mechanically drive the wheels, Remy RVH250 electric traction motor, motor controller, software, and lithium-ion battery packs.

Another view of the ALTe rolling chassis.

The rear-wheel-drive F-150 to be tested by PG&E uses an engine from a late-model Focus, but ALTe has flexibility for what generator it will ultimately use.

“At this point, ALTe has used the Ford 2.0-liter engine in its prototype vehicles but the company has not yet signed a long-term supply agreement with an engine supplier (expected within the next 2-3 months),” Baranik said. "ALTe is in discussions with several OEMs who have expressed interest in providing engines."

He would not say what company supplies the motor controllers, but the long-term supply contract with Remy for its bleeding-edge, High Voltage Hairpin motors is set, he said, as is a contract for the lithium-ion batteries, which we are apparently just a little early reporting on.

“ALTe has recently signed a long-term supply agreement with one of the leading lithium-ion battery companies in North America,” Baranik said. “A press release will be issued within the next two weeks.”

The F-150, Baranik said, has a range “projected at about 25 miles in the prototype vehicle.” Horsepower from the four-cylinder plus motor is said to be on par with the supplanted V8, torque is greater, and cargo and towing capacity are unaffected.

After the twin battery packs adding up to 20 kWh deplete, Baranik said PG&E can expect “between 25-30 mpg in charge-sustained mode (i.e., once the genset turns on and after the “all electric” range/miles).”

Photo of actual rolling chassis. Green sections are battery packs. Note multi-speed transmission is retained. As an option ALTe will rebuild the transmission while the REEP conversion is being performed.

Baranik said while the present prototype is a 4X2, the system will work for four-wheel-drive applications also.

"The packaging is different for a 4x4 vehicle but the ALTe powertrain will be able to be installed/retrofit in 4x4 vehicles," Baranik said.

What does ALTe hope to accomplish in the PG&E trial?

ALTe intends “for a very educated and experienced fleet (PG&E) to evaluate and provide to ALTe’s engineers performance feedback that can enhance the ALTe powertrain as we prepare for launch next year,” Baranik said. “This will also provide an opportunity for PG&E to validate ALTe’s product.”

Next, we asked Baranik whether ALTe would use larger batteries than 20 kWh to extend all-electric range?

“ALTe will enter the market initially with a common configuration for light trucks/vans up to 14,000 GVW,” Baranik said. “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.”

Given its new efficiency, the converted F-150’s 27-gallon tank is removed and replaced with a relatively small 8-gallon tank.

“With a projected range of about 300 miles, ALTe does not believe it necessary to offer a larger fuel tank,” Baranik said.

Costs for an individual vehicle conversion are projected at around $30,000. While this sounds high, ALTe has a business case to justify this to fleet customers who are known to be sticklers looking at return on investment. Depending on the usage model, payback can be as soon as 12 months, "depending primarily on the number of miles driven and the projected cost of gasoline," another company representative said.

"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," the representative said. "Furthermore, many corporate, regional and local fleet owners and operators are being forced to continue to use their current fleet as their replacement fund budgets have been drastically reduced. ALTe offers them, for the first time ever, a feasible option to extend the life of their fleet vehicles for several years where they also benefit from doubled fuel economy at an affordable incremental cost."

Cost benefit chart provided by ALTe.

We asked Baranik: What subsidies, if any, could help underwrite lease or purchase of retrofitted REEP vehicles?

“Federal tax credits are the most well known source of financial assistance. In addition, there are numerous state and local grants, credits and subsidies that vary by locale,” he said.

We asked also: Does the $7,500 federal grant for consumers apply to a retrofitted REEP vehicle?

“At this point, a federal tax credit equal to 10 percent of the cost of a retrofit with an alternative-fuel powertrain is available with a maximum amount of a $4,000 tax credit (e.g., if the retrofit cost $30,000 then the tax credit would be equal to $3,000),” Baranik said.

Measures of success

All this sounds great, but will this company fly? Baranik said plans indicate a definite yes.

The company’s CEO and co-founder, John Thomas was recently named as one of Automotive News' Electrifying 100 , and it has garnered more impressive commitment from industry bigwigs.

“ALTe has formed a Customer Advisory Board that includes fleet directors from over a dozen of the leading brand names in North America, including PG&E, Cox Communication, Frito Lay, Duke Energy, Waste Management, Service Master, DirecTV, and Stantec among others,” Baranik said. “All of these fleet managers have driven an ALTe powered vehicle and have verified the feasibility of our business model.”

It says "REEV" in this graphic, but the company is going with the term "REEP."

Digging slightly deeper, we asked whether the company has any paying customers yet?

“ALTe is projected to start installing its electric powertrain systems in summer 2012 with the company beginning to accept purchase orders at the end of the 2011,” Baranik said.

We also asked what commitments the company has from any accounts pending.

“ALTe will begin accepting purchase orders at the end of 2011 to support its summer 2012 product launch. In the meantime, ALTe has contracted on pilot projects with PG&E and other companies (names not yet released publicly) where one of their vehicles will be retrofit with an ALTe powertrain. The companies will be able to evaluate the performance and provide feedback to ALTe and presumably lead to purchase orders for 2012.

OK, all this still sounds solid, but we are familiar with startups that love to sell the sizzle, so we asked about profitability.

When does your business plan call for you to be in the black, or are you self-funded?

“At this point, ALTe is not generating revenue but intends to be self funded and profitable from Job #1 forward,” Baranik said.

If the company can pull off profitability from its first contract, that would be exceptional indeed, but this is what we were told.

Next we asked, can you share who your investors are, if there are any?

“Two members of our Board of Directors, Tom Lasorda (former CEO of Chrysler) and Simon Ahn (attorney who also is managing director of SMS Investment Group) are investors in ALTe along with the three co-founders and several other sources,” Baranik said.

We asked whether the REEP conversions will be available for all makes and models?

“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,” Baranik said. “Longer term, ALTe is involved in discussions with various OEMs regarding the inclusion of an ALTe PHEV powertrain in new vehicle platforms.”

More to the point, we asked, what are the company's long-term goals?

“[To] include ALTe powertrains in new vehicle platforms, transition our business model internationally, and expand our product line to include other EV components,” Baranik said.

Initial fleet accounts will be light trucks, limo vans, etc., leading up to plans for 26,000 GVWR vehicles. Automakers could also work with ALTe to apply its technology to passenger vehicles built on an assembly line. Economies of scale and declining battery prices are anticipated to make that feasible

If this pans out, it could prove lucrative if present deals Tesla has with Toyota are any indicator. Tesla has recently disclosed a $100 million contract in working with Toyota on plug-in solutions, and talk also of a deal as high as $1 billion have been reportedly in discussion between Tesla and Toyota.

As it is, the need to make gas guzzlers less thirsty is even more pressing, and it makes a lot of sense too. The Chevrolet Volt, for example, gets an EPA rated 37 mpg when running on gasoline power, and its Cruze sibling achieves around the same or even higher. The biggest sore thumbs on the automotive fuel economy landscape are gas guzzlers including light duty trucks, which Americans are still infatuated with, are still needed by fleets, and still selling in high numbers dragging down fleet fuel economy averages.

So, lastly, we asked: how do the new CAFE rules affect your future plans?

“As indicated in the recently released CAFE proposal, the federal government has established a 54.5 mpg fuel economy target by the 2025 model year. Importantly for ALTe, the proposal would exempt full size pickup trucks from any fuel economy increases from the 2017-2019 model years,” Baranik said. “This confirms what ALTe has learned through various industry sources – that the OEMs do not have any meaningful powertrain improvements planned for the light truck industry for the next several years.”

ALTe says it has meaningful powertrain improvements being finalized, and it will begin taking orders in 2011 putting it in position to help automakers with another solution for gas guzzlers.