BBC Autos

Alt-Green

With Lutz at wheel, electric work trucks gain momentum

About the author

Editor of BBC Autos, Matthew is a former editor at Automobile Magazine and the creator of the digital-only Roadtrip Magazine. His automotive and travel writing has appeared in such magazines as Wired, Popular Science, The Robb Report and Caribbean Travel + Life. He lives in Los Angeles with his wonderful wife and four-year-old daughter.

 

VIA Motors new chairman, Bob Lutz, at his home in Michigan

VIA Motors' new chairman, Bob Lutz, at his home in Michigan. (Via Motors)

In Utah, a small start-up has big plans for work trucks.

The full-size pickup, ubiquitous on US roads and worksites, has a well-earned reputation as a consummate gas-guzzler. Despite the introduction of fuel-saving features in recent years – including cylinder deactivation, direct fuel injection and, in the case of Ford’s 2015 F-150, aluminium body panels – such trucks still visit the pump, where a fill-up can top $100, with alarming frequency.

On 18 February, VIA Motors announced that it had appointed Robert A Lutz as its board chairman, replacing (amicably, says VIA) venture capitalist Carl Berg, who had served in the role since the company’s founding in 2009. Lutz, an outspoken auto-industry executive whose CV includes senior management stints at Ford, Chrysler, BMW and, until 2010, General Motors, previously served in an advisory role for the start-up. The so-called “father of the Chevrolet Volt” brings some much needed visibility to VIA as it prepares to deliver the first of its electrified pickups, SUVs and full-size vans.

Said Lutz in a company release: “If we are going to see mainstream adoption of electric vehicles, the technology must deliver a good return on investment to the largest segment of the [US] auto business, namely trucks, vans and SUVs.”

VIA’s lineup includes a trio of full-size Chevrolets: a Silverado pickup, a Suburban SUV and an Express van (both cargo and passenger models). The trucks use a proprietary range-extending powertrain called V-Drive. Similar to drive system used by of the short-lived Fisker Karma, the system employs a bank of lithium-ion batteries that provides an estimated 40 miles of purely electric cruising, and a gasoline engine – in this case, Chevrolet’s 305-horsepower 4.3-litre V6 – acts solely as an on-demand generator, recharging the batteries on the fly and extending the range to some 400 miles. The whole system, along with navigation, communication, entertainment and dispatch integration, is monitored and managed through an in-dash Apple iPad.

One of VIA’s more clever upgrades is a solar bed cover called SölTRUX. The rigid, hinged tonneau is blanketed by a grid of photovoltaic cells that delivers a trickle charge to the battery pack and, on long sunny days, can bump all-electric cruising range by 5 to 10 miles – or about 25%. Another option is an on-board power-exporter, which can deliver electricity to tools on a job site or power a typical home for up to a week.

Such innovation won’t come cheaply. Via is currently taking reservations for trucks on its website with a $1,000 deposit. The company’s “anticipated selling price” is $79,000 – about three times the starting price of a Chevrolet Silverado pickup. And that figure will balloon as customers tick boxes for a host of options, including four-wheel drive, the power-exporter and the SölTRUX solar bed cover.