While the current crop of electric cars certainly work well for some in terms of saving on fuel costs, reducing emissions and buying domestically-produced fuel, they leave others high and dry when it comes to providing the functionality needed for daily life.
Take pickup trucks as an example: while there are likely many pickup owners - both fleet and consumer - who would benefit greatly from a huge reduction in their fuel bill, there is no electric vehicle currently on the market that could possibly replace the pickup's seemingly infinite functionality. But, recent developments promise to change that dynamic, with several manufacturers pushing the envelope to figure out if plug-in hybrid pickups can be built at a cost that makes them worthwhile for consumers.
Earlier this year Chrysler delivered 10 plug-in hybrid Ram 1500s to the city of Yuma, Ariz., and this month delivered 28 more to both San Francisco and Sacramento, Calif. The trucks are the first in a demonstration fleet of 140 electric vehicles that will be distributed across the U.S. to test them in both urban and rural settings, as well as a wide variety of climates. The project is scheduled to run for three years and is funded with a $48 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy and $49.4 million from Chrysler's own coffers.
While it might seem that an electric pickup would fall prey to many sacrifices that could reduce its usefulness, the RAM 1500 plug-in hybrids aren't toned down - in fact they offer some extended functionality that the conventional versions don't.
The base of the Ram 1500 PHEV's powertrain is a 5.7-liter HEMI V8 coupled to a hybrid transmission. For improved fuel economy, the vehicle can shut down up to four cylinders at highway speeds and disconnect the front axle of the four-wheel-drive transmission when not in use. An electric motor connected to a 12.9 kilowatt-hour battery pack located underneath the rear bench provides the ability to drive as an all-electric pickup truck for a relatively short distance, at which point the vehicle will turn into a conventional hybrid.
The extended functionality comes in the form of a 240-volt, 30-amp outlet and a 120-volt, 20-amp outlet, both located in the rear box. The vehicle has the ability to provide up to 6.6 kilowatts of power, which means that even a heavy duty table saw with a 240 volt connection could be run in the field from the battery of the truck without any extra modification.
Although Chrysler isn't giving out any specifics on how much their Ram 1500 PHEV's could improve fuel economy just yet, ALTe, a startup based in Michigan that has developed a PHEV powertrain that can be installed in existing Ford F150s, thinks the impact could be significant.
ALTe says their technology can increase the fuel economy of an F150 by as much as 200 percent - meaning that if an existing V8 F150 returns an average of 13-14 mpg, a converted one could return as much as 39-42 mpg. The company claims that adding their conversion kit results in no loss to cargo capacity, horsepower or towing capability compared with the original V8 engine.
ALTe's plug-in hybrid system differs from Chrysler's in that the engine in the F150s is not connected to the wheels in any way. Instead, in a configuration known as a serial hybrid, an efficient four-cylinder engine runs a generator that provides power to a 20 kilowatt-hour battery pack. The battery itself stores enough energy from a wall outlet for the vehicle to drive up to 30 miles on a full charge before the engine needs to turn on to extend the range another 270 miles.
The company will begin commercial production of their PHEV powertrain in 2012, but has signed on several participants to help demonstrate the technology before then, including massive California utility PG&E.
Although both of these plug-in hybrid pickups aren't yet available for the public to buy, the fact that they are being seriously studied offers a glimpse of a not-distant future in which consumers who need pickups will have the same choice as those who can buy a small electric vehicle to shield them from the turbulence of gas prices.