EV Companies Accelerate Toward Detroit Auto Workers

Detroit has drawn the attention of electric vehicle companies that want to produce electric commercial vehicles. “We want to tap into Detroit’s engineering base, which understands the demands of automotive systems.”

(TNS) — The next electric vehicle you come in contact with may not be an exotic gull-winged Tesla X, sleek Mustang Mach-E or flashy 1,000-horsepower GMC Hummer. Odds are increasing it’ll be a boxy delivery van or a school bus, and that it was engineered or built in Detroit, Mich.

There’s a gold rush going on to produce electric commercial vehicles like buses and Amazon vans, with everybody from huge automakers to independent customizers staking their claim.

One, Fontaine Modification, opened a facility in Detroit enclave Hamtramck in March that will convert chassis for Ford medium-duty trucks to electric vehicles in addition to working on conventionally powered trucks, Fontaine truck and EV president Pat Griffin said. Fontaine takes Ford F-59 and 53 rolling chassis — imagine a school bus’s skeleton: the frame, wheels and engine, no body or seats — built by nearby Detroit Chassis and adds electric systems.

About 100 such vehicles are on the road now, said Matt O’Leary, president of Bay Area-based Motiv Power Systems, which provides the vehicles’ batteries, controls and motors and is in the process of opening a Detroit-area engineering center.

Tapping Detroit’s Talent Pool

“We want to tap into Detroit’s engineering base, which understands the demands of automotive systems,” said O’Leary, who formerly ran Ford’s truck, SUV and commercial vehicle, or CV, business. Motiv also provides systems to electrify E-450 trucks from Ford’s plant in Avon Lake, Ohio. Electric vehicles in service now include school buses and employee shuttles Google uses to reduce congestion in its hometown of Mountain View, California, O’Leary said. Uniform supplier Aramark just ordered 50 after evaluating a couple for reliability and uptime.

“Electric vehicles have a lower total cost of opportunity than diesel or gasoline,” O’Leary said. “There’s less maintenance, cheaper fuel and fewer parts to break.

“The initial cost is higher, though. It pays off over five-six years, but California’s incentives reduce the payoff to one or two years. The payback will be equivalent as battery prices fall.”

Meantime Ford is preparing to build electric versions of its big Transit delivery van in the United States and Europe for the 2022 model year. Ford hasn’t said where it’ll build the U.S. e-vans, but at or near the Transit assembly plant near Kansas City, Missouri, seems reasonable.

Incentives Are 'Icing On The Cake'

“We’re looking at pilot projects to demonstrate the benefits to customers,” said Yaro Hetman, manager of Ford’s Team Edison electric and connected vehicle group’s truck and van unit. “States have different incentives but they’re icing on the cake, Our goal is to make a good business case even without incentives.”

CV maker Spartan Motors, based in Charlotte, Michigan, will begin making its Reach electric truck using an Isuzu chassis with motor and battery from diesel engine specialist Cummins next year, fleet vehicles president Chad Heminover said. There’s no word where, but Spartan makes vehicles in Michigan, seven other states and Mexico.

Also next year, electric truck startup Rivian, based just west of Detroit, should begin building delivery vans for Amazon, the most eager convert to e-vans with 100,000 ordered. Rivian will build them at a plant in Illinois.

Neighboring Motor City electric truck specialist Bollinger Motors just announced it’ll build electric CVs in addition to its already announced luxury electric pickup and SUV. Production of all three will begin next year, at a U.S. location Bollinger expects to announce soon, brand director Mark Foster said: “We’re dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s now.”

Bigger Batteries for Commercial Loads

Called the E-Chassis, the CVs will use the same “skateboard” chassis carrying battery, motor and suspension as the B1 and B2, but they can be longer, accommodating a 50% more powerful battery so the CVs can go farther or carry heavier loads than the passenger-oriented B1 SUV and B2 pickup.

Customers will be able to get a variety of tops, ranging from enclosed vans to flatbeds. Bollinger hopes to sell around 1,000 E-chassis the first year. A similar number of B1s and B2s, will probably be built on another line in the same facility as the CV.

“We’re talking to prospective customers,” Foster said.

Virtually every automaker is working on electric commercial vehicles. Germany’s Daimler has built a few electric semi-trucks for its U.S. Freightliner brand, but it’s unlikely more companies are doing more to make the vehicles widespread anywhere than in and around Detroit.

©2020 the Detroit Free Press. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.