Published on January 1st, 2014 | by Zachary Shahan


Bob Lutz: Electric Trucks Should Have Come First

January 1st, 2014 by  

Via-bob-lutz-with-electrified-truck-at-his-home-in-detroit-1Bob Lutz, former Vice Chairman of GM and a key person behind the Chevy Volt, is a famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) figure in the auto industry. Lutz has worked for BMW, Ford, Chrysler, and GM. He was vice chairman of GM until 2009, and he retired altogether in 2010. However, he now sits on the board of  a leading startup in the plug-in electric vehicle market, Via Motors, and he has some strong views on electric vehicles. In particular, he forecasts that an electric car future is definitely coming. Notably, this is coming from a man who actually denies global warming (against the consensus of 97% of climate scientists and 97% of climate research papers).

In a recent interview published in The Seattle Times, Lutz actually contends, however, that the first plug-in vehicles of this century should have been trucks and other heavy, low-efficiency vehicles rather than cars. (Note that Via Motors is in the electric truck, SUV, and van business.)

Who knows how the interview was actually conducted, but it starts off like this in The Seattle Times:

Q.: Do you think the Volt should have been a truck, not a sedan?

A: We started at the wrong end. The whole automotive industry made the intellectual mistake of thinking EVs were all about maximum range, so we all started with small vehicles that are basically very economical anyway. Yes, you do save fuel. You can use a smaller battery, but it makes less sense to take a 40 mpg vehicle and make it electric than it does to take a full-size pickup or SUV, which in town realistically gets 11 to 12 mpg. If you take that to 100 mpg, now you’re really saving money and saving a scarce natural resource and reducing CO2 emissions drastically.

The realization came to me suddenly late that the right place to electrify is at the heavy end, with full-size pickups and SUVs, which America loves but which are a somewhat endangered species with fuel-economy regulations.

Well, that’s something. And I wish that I could see a video of the interview, since it’s hard to imagine Lutz talking about reducing CO2 emissions.

I won’t post the full interview, but here are the next 3 Q&As, also interesting:

Q: Do you think electric vehicles would have the same marginalized, tree-hugging reputation if they had started with pickups instead of small passenger vehicles?

A: It would have changed it. Bigger trucks are the only electrified vehicles that I know of that make instant economic sense because the fuel saving is so large that you will more than get back your monthly lease price.

The other feature is exportable power. Every one of these trucks has power outlets. Imagine a suburban homeowner owning a Chevy Tahoe with VIA technology. If you have a power outage, you go out and start your truck and plug in. You don’t have to buy an emergency generator. You’ve got a week’s worth of power.

Q: You’ve said some critical things about hybrid vehicles in the past. Is your embrace of EVs now a reflection of your concern about your legacy?

A: I am what I am. To some people, I am the environmental anti-Christ because I own and fly a former military jet fighter. I have what is known as a very large carbon footprint. I like high-powered cars like Corvette ZR1s, but on the other hand people have trouble figuring me out because I’m also deeply involved and a believer in vehicle electrification. Unlike previous hybrids with little economic return, extended range EVs make economic sense for both the automaker and the consumer.

Q: How do you reconcile that?

A: They’re all interesting technologies. I like vehicle electrification because it will in the future be, by far, the most efficient propulsion form, and electric vehicles are great to drive. They’re quiet. They have enormous power. The only problem today is they don’t have enough range.

Of course, some electric vehicles have plenty of range, and plug-in hybrids like the Chevy Volt also have plenty of range. But the implied point — that more range from pure electric vehicles costs more than most are willing to pay, and that is the only real drawback of electric vehicles today — is correct. That will, of course, be remedied as batteries improve. But even today, that’s one minus compared to the numerous benefits Lutz notes, as well as others:

  • great to drive
  • enormous power
  • super quiet and smooth
  • huge fuel savings, which can equal huge financial savings
  • much less maintenance and lower maintenance costs
  • can conveniently recharge at home while sitting on your couch
  • cut global warming pollution and other pollution
  • increase energy security
  • safer

Anyway, the entire interview is very interesting — with Lutz even comparing the EV revolution to a transition to jet aircraft that occurred many decades ago (which he lived and flew through) — but I think the most interesting point was the claim that it would have been better to start the electric vehicle revolution with larger vehicles. Well, we’ll see how the Via Motors products do compared to the Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt, and over a dozen other electric cars now on the market.

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About the Author

is tryin' to help society help itself (and other species) with the power of the typed word. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director and chief editor, but he's also the president of Important Media and the director/founder of EV Obsession, Solar Love, and Bikocity. Zach is recognized globally as a solar energy, electric car, and energy storage expert. Zach has long-term investments in TSLA, FSLR, SPWR, SEDG, & ABB — after years of covering solar and EVs, he simply has a lot of faith in these particular companies and feels like they are good cleantech companies to invest in.

  • Bob Averill

    My only real beef with climate deniers is that they stand in the way of the technologies necessary for fixing it. Lutz doesn’t. He’s done more than most to accelerate their development and proliferation. So, regardless of his beliefs he’s okay by me.

  • Lutz falls victim to number fetishism. His ideas look good on paper though.

    The reason why Lutz’ plan would have failed is that people buy cars on emotion. I expected him to understand that. Those first hybrids and EV’s were sold to the ‘treehugger’ crowd, willing to pay a premium. Does he really think they would be driving around in a big truck saying “Ooh look at me being environmentally responsible: it’s electric!”. Because I don’t think the first generation of trucks would be a net cost saving for the customer and thus would be limited to people buying one for the environment’s sake.

    And how did he plan on charging the huge battery that a truck necessarily has? Likely three times as big as that of the LEAF. CHAdeMO maxes out at 50 kW, so ‘fast’ charging would take 1.5 hours. So the new truck would have to be accompanied by a powerful new fast charging standard. I don’t readily see GM rolling out such infrastructure a la Tesla. They are the dinosaur car company that thinks like a car company: we provide the wheels, some other company takes care of the energy.

    The only ones willing to pay the higher price in the early days were the treehuggers. So that’s why the first hybrids and EV’s weren’t trucks.

    Tesla is the first to sell to non-treehuggers, and they have hinted at offering a truck in the future.

    But Lutz is of course right about the fact that the pickup trucks burn most fuel and therefore should be the ultimate goal.

  • Bob_Wallace

    Here’s the results from the first UPS hybrid truck study in 2008.

    Hybrids were 28.9% more fuel efficient and 8% cheaper to maintain.

  • Bob_Wallace

    I think things started correctly. Nissan and other companies went for the mass market segment. Tesla went for the luxury segment. Both make sense.

    Wouldn’t have worked well if all companies went for the luxury segment.

    Now, IMHO, it’s time for PHEV pickups. Many pickups are not driven that far but do need range and extra power when hauling large loads or towing equipment.

    Take building contractors. They tend to take jobs closer to home so that they don’t spend huge amounts of time commuting. And they generally have power at the work site so they can often plug in for a top up. Something that allowed them to do 20 – 30 miles on electricity with a fuel tank backup would be sweet.

    Then all the pickups that are used for commuting during the week but towing a trailer on some weekends. Give them enough range for the weekday commute. Let liquid fuel take care of the occasional weekend longer drive.

    • looks like the luxury segment is getting its attention this year, will see how others do:

      be honest, Bob: you want a plug-in hybrid electric truck. 😀

      • Bob_Wallace

        I want a small electric SUV with a 200 mile range and 4wd.

        I put so few miles on my pickup that I burn an insignificant amount of fuel. Going forward it will probably be less than 500 miles a year.

        Oh, would you make that SUV self-driving as well?

        • Is that all you want? You should have asked me before Christmas. 😀

          more seriously: would that Model X do? or thinking bigger?

          • Bob_Wallace

            Not bigger. But getting a couple of kayaks strapped down on top of the gull-wind doors, that’s going to be tricky….

          • hmm…

  • globi

    The Tesla S has a very low drag coefficient of only 0.24, while a Ford F-150 has a huge drag coefficient of 0.41 in addition to a gigantic frontal area.
    Moreover, a pick-up truck is also significantly heavier than a luxury sedan.
    So, both the high curb weight and high aerodynamic drag would require an enormous and expensive battery, making a pick-up truck not only heavier but simply not salable to the typical pick-up truck crowd.

    If anything a real electric truck may be sensible for a grocery chain for city deliveries:
    But this is obviously not what Bob Lutz had in mind.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Fed Ex, UPS, Coke, Pepsi and other large companies have electric trucks in their fleets. They started including them a few years ago.

      A lot of delivery routes are well under 100 miles and include a lot of stop and go stuff. Ideal role for EV-trucks.

      “UPS said in 2011 that it was acquiring 100 battery-electric delivery trucks for its

      California operations and has now put the proverbial rubber to the road.

      The delivery-service giant has deployed those 100 electric vehicles in the Sacramento, San Bernardino, Bakersfield and Fresno areas. All told, the vehicles, which have a 75-mile single-charge range, should help UPS cut diesel-fuel use by about 126,000 gallons a year. UPS operates more than 2,500 alt-fuel vehicles in the US and acquired these from Stockton, CA-based Electric Vehicles International.

      UPS isn’t the only company that is putting plugs on delivery vans. Amp recently began testing a medium duty van because, as Amp CEO told Autoblog Green,

      getting the diesel out of the delivery can be an effective way to cut fuel use because of those vehicles’ high mileage use and city-driving patterns. Last year, UPS competitor FedEx said it was more than doubling its all-electric fleet to 43 vehicles from 19”

      Fred Smith, CEO of FedEX during NPR interview…

      “An all-electric pickup and delivery van will operate at a 75 percent less per-mile cost than an internal combustion engine variant,” he says. “Now, I didn’t say 7 1/2 percent — [I said] 75 percent. These are big numbers.”

      Smith points out that the vehicles would be charged in off-peak hours, minimizing the need for additional power plants. Battery life and cost remain a challenge, but Smith is optimistic.

      “I think in three or four years you will have a battery vehicle with a range that’s probably double what it has today — a couple of hundred miles versus a hundred miles — and it’ll probably be 25 percent to 40 percent cheaper than [it] currently is.”

      • globi

        I agree, as aerodynamic drag is irrelevant in a city delivery truck.
        Also, a city delivery truck is doing far more miles and fuel costs play a significant role.

        But Lutz talks about pick-up trucks and SUVs which are typically used by highway commuters and in that case, an electric version would simply be too costly to be salable. Also, pick-up-truck and SUV commuters don’t think about fuel costs when they purchase their gasguzzler (they think about pulling a boat they don’t own over a mountain they don’t live nearby).

        • Bob_Wallace

          I think most pickup/SUV owners understand the low mileage they’ll be getting but accept as part of the cost of owning.

          I think if they could get a plug-in hybrid for not too much more lots would be driving PHEVs.

          Especially considering how fast those rigs would be when the light turns green…. ;o)

  • Bernard Finucane

    I’m not sure I agree with him, but is seems very true for hybrid vehicles. I really do not understand why nobody is selling hybrid 18 wheelers and construction equipment.

  • driveby

    And with what kind of battery did he intend to power those trucks or what kind of electric range did he envision?

    Sorry, but I call BS.

  • Omega Centauri

    I don’t think starting with big vehicles and then moving towards smaller ones would have worked. The key impediment to breaking the (chicken and egg problem) was getting the price per KWhour of traction batteries down. The early EVs had to be small, because large EVs would have cost a fortune due to the need for large batteries. Now that batteries are climbing down the cost curve larger EVs start to make sense. I just don’t think the economics would have made large first work.

    What I’d like to see electrified (or at least hydridized) are the super unsexy vehicles that are used a great deal, and make huge numbers of start/stops. Garbage trucks, mail trucks, and buses come to mind. These waste huge amounts of fuel, accererating and braking, and usually are quite bad for the local air quality. And they are usually driven 20-50hours per week. This is where the greatest gain per dollar would be had.

    EV trucks for backup power? Not for a rational buyer. You can buy generators for a few hundred bucks. I’m sure the EV is more efficient and muchmuch cleaner than cheap backup generators. But, actual power outages are too rare and short for this to make sense. It may make a great emotional appeal, but makes little economic sense. Now, maybe the ability to have robust electric power available at a non grid connected job site, to run tools off, -that might be a great EV-pickup selling point.

    • Altair IV

      EVs for backup makes perfect sense, and precisely *for* the reason you give. Why spend several hundred dollars extra on something that may only be used a couple of times a decade, and will just sit around gathering dust the rest of the time (and then might not start up when you need it), when there’s already a perfectly good, functioning, backup sitting right there in your garage?

      Of course nobody is going to buy a vehicle only because it can be used for backup, but if you’re going to buy an EV anyway, then so much the better if it does have that feature.

    • Altair IV

      Oh, and I agree with the rest of your post totally, by the way.

    • Marion Meads

      So you are saying that the approach of Tesla was wrong? They used supermassive batteries.

      • Omega Centauri

        No. I’m saying the approach advocated by Lutz (start with trucks) would have been wrong. There were enough people willing to pay a lot for a cool sports car that Tesla’s approach has been proven. Now that batteries are coming down in cost, larger vehicles should be becoming feasible.

        • Marion Meads

          If batteries were first introduced in large trucks, the golf-cart stigma would have really prevented its adoption. Even GM that developed a truck hybrid with improved mileage did not get traction.

          Tesla was the only company that has successfully removed the golf-cart stigma associated with EV’s. But it was GM’s EV-1 that first proved that EV’s can be normal practical cars even on large scale, but then they scrapped it in favor of producing many trucks, SUV’s and got the bad image icon on “Who Killed the electric cars”.

          Removing the golf-cart stigma associated with batteries was key to the revolution that all the other car manufacturers took notice. It could not have been done with trucks. Thanks to Tesla.

    • garbage trucks: i feel like i saw a story about an electric one last year. but not 100% sure. will be sure to start grabbing these more since so many people are asking for them. 😀

      mail: i’ve got a short post coming on one created for Denmark, but not really a truck. you’ll see…

      Emotions: key to selling vehicles.

  • vensonata .

    Greetings. Here we are in 2014! This is my first post so I will begin by expressing my appreciation of Mr. Shahan’s great site. You are a form of clean energy yourself Zachary! I also appreciate some of your regular commentators, especially Bob Wallace, his knowledge is balanced and obviously experienced in alternative energy lifestyles. The tone of most of the comments in general is also refreshingly without the ‘short, nasty and brutish’ mentality of some reactionary types.

    I can sense that Zachary is beginning to have a large vision of the whole shift to solar, ev’s, etc. I myself live in an off grid solar community which can accommodate about 25 people in “grid style” and has been functioning for ten years, so I have dealt with the amazing changes for the better in the technology and economics of alternative energy over the last decade. All for now, but will comment again in the future. Again, your work is appreciated.

    • Ha, thanks!! 😀

      And regarding the community here, i can say that we have really tried to create that atmosphere, so i appreciate that. And of course appreciate the commenters who have decided to make it so. 😀

  • Karl-Friedrich Lenz

    This is interesting, and it makes sense at first glance.

    If so, it may be also an interesting question exactly how much more money can be saved by converting a gasmobile SUV to an EV compared to a smaller car.

    • yeah, i’d love to see numbers on that… Lutz is likely to have access to the best ones on that. i imagine Elon & team also have a good estimate.

    • Amy Clavero Real

      It makes more savings of going from 10 mpg to 110 mpg than from 50 mpg to 150 mpg. You increase both by 100 mpg by being a plug-in but for the 10 mpg guzzler you save 91 gallons/month while the 50 mpg, you would have only saved 13.3 gal/month for a 1,000 mile/month commute. This was the major point of Bob Lutz. Pick up trucks, minivans, suvs and cuvs would have been the prioritized vehicles for EREVs instead of the gas sipping cars.

      • Marion Meads

        I normally drive 32,000 miles per year.
        At 10 mpg truck that would be 3,200 gallons of gas
        At 110 overall mpg EREV truck, that would be 291 gallons gas

        Savings of 2,909 gallons/year.

        At 38 mpg CS mode Volt, that would be 842 gallons gas
        At life time mpg Volt mpg of 140, that would be just 229 gallons of gas. Saving 613 gallons/year.

        Prius 50 mpg, would use 640 gallons

        Plug-in-Prius, with 11 mile battery range, according to my driving profile, I would achieve an overall 68 mpg, I would use 470 gallons, saving 170 gallons.

        But I do need a truck. If a good EREV truck came out before the Volt, I would not have bought the Volt and a truck, just the EREV truck. I would have saved close to $10,000 per year in fuel after paying the electricity for the EV miles.

  • Jouni Valkonen

    Auto industry started from the wrong end. They should have been produced expensive electric long range luxury vehicles to drive the demand for batteries and charging infrastructure. Then as battery costs gets up when demand increases, practical electric vehicles will become available larger and larger audience.

    Goverments should just put 100 % punishment tax for non-EV cars that have list price more than $60 000. Hybrids should have 50 % punishment tax and plug-in hybrids 30 %. This alone together with gasoline taxes would fuel the increasing demand for electric vehicles.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Had the economy not melted down at the end of 2008 and Bakkin shale oil not come on line lower end EV sales would likely have been very much higher by now.

    • the approach Tesla took, at least…

      • Bernard Finucane

        Right. Tesla is a smart company that carved out a niche of early adopters to help grow the product line enough for the mainstream. This is standard procedure for high tech companies.

        • can’t believe the major auto companies didn’t try this… (jk)

  • JamesWimberley

    Tesla broke half of the “EVs are girly toy cars” meme by building fast, sexy electric sports cars that could match Ferraris accelerating off the lights on Rodeo Drive. Maybe Lutz can break the other half with an equally irrational muscle pickup truck, complete with adverts featuring lean Westerners in jeans and stetsons dragging rocks out of their driveways.
    Meanwhile, how about an unsexy pizza delivery van or school bus?

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