Converting Gas-Guzzlers into Hybrids

Companies hope to turn aging trucks, vans, and taxis into more efficient hybrids.

The startup Alt-e replaced the V-8 in a Ford F-150 pickup truck with a small, 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine and electric motor, the top of which is shown here.
Credit: Alt-e

A handful of companies hope to carve a new niche by converting fleets of gas- or diesel-powered trucks, vans, and cars into hybrids and plug-in hybrids–and they’re attracting millions of dollars of funding to do it. In some cases, they say, the conversions could pay for themselves in fuel and maintenance savings in just a few years.

XL Hybrids plans to convert taxis, delivery trucks and other fleet vehicles into hybrids, cutting the vehicles’ fuel consumption by 15 to 30 percent. Alt-E, a startup founded by former Tesla Motors engineers, is similarly targeting fleet vehicles, but it plans to make plug-in hybrids that can drive for roughly 40 miles on the energy stored in a battery that’s recharged by plugging in. Once that stored charge is used up, Alt-E’s vehicle will act like a conventional hybrid with fuel economy of 32 miles per hour–more than double that of the prototype vehicle it is working with–a Ford F150 pickup. Hybrid Electric Vehicle Technologies (HEVT) plans to offer both hybrid and plug-in hybrid conversions for a range of vehicles.

Next year, major automakers will start selling their own plug-in hybrids–vehicles that can be recharged from electrical outlets but also have gasoline engines to extend their range. The first one–the Chevy Volt–will go on sale at the end of the year, with other automakers following suit over the next couple of years.

At first, however, only a few plug-in hybrid models will be available, and these won’t fill the needs of many customers, such as companies with fleets of trucks and vans, especially those that have been customized for specific applications. This is also still the case with conventional hybrids, even though they were first on the market 10 years ago. There are some hybrid taxis on the roads today, but taxi drivers in cities such as Boston and New York have resisted mandates to switch entirely to the hybrid models now available, says Amy Fazen, vice president of business operations at XL Hybrid.

The conversions companies hope to fill this niche. While the scale of conversions will be limited, these companies could serve to prod major automakers to offer a greater variety of these vehicles, say some automotive analysts.

The startups are taking various approaches. Alt-E, based in Auburn Hills, MI, plans to gut conventional vehicles, replacing the engine with a combination of electric motor, battery packs, electronic controls, and a gasoline generator. So far the company has raised about $28 million from individual investors and in government funding.

The other two companies plan more modest conversions–tacking an electric motor, battery, and controls onto the existing engine and transmission via the drive shaft that emerges from the engine to drive the wheels or the rear differential, which translates the motion of the drive shaft to the rear axle. XL Hybrid, based in Somerville, MA, has raised $1.8 million from individual investors, and Chicago, IL-based HEVT has raised roughly $1 million.

The companies have all developed proprietary control systems to connect their equipment with the vehicles’ existing computers and coordinate between the gasoline engines and electric motors. Prices range from $26,500 for Alt-E’s F150 conversion (about the cost of new, low end F150) to under $10,000 for XL Hybrids’ conversion of delivery vans or taxis. All the companies are at an early stage of development and have so far only converted a one or two vehicles.

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