I knew from the outset that I was going to get along with the guys from Motiv. Their home page boldly proclaims the deep mastery their team has achieved in relevant industry skills but I skipped right over that. Pizza. These guys have reasonable skills at pizza eating. I have been known to throw back a slice or ten in my day and I felt right at home.
As my stomach settled down and the excitement over a now necessary lunch of pizza subsided, I settled in on the five pillars of competency Motiv is focused on – Entrepreneurship, Customer Service, Software Engineering, Electrical Engineering, and Manufacturing. That’s basically an EV startup or stationary storage startup in a nutshell.
I spoke with Motiv’s CEO Jim Castelaz about the company and where it is headed in light of a new deal it landed in partnership with Trans Tech, where Motiv is bringing 13 fully electric school buses to northern California. The buses will go to Elk Grove United School District and Twin Rivers Unified School District and were made possible by a $7.5 million grant from the California Air Resources Board. The new buses will reduce operating costs by slashing maintenance costs and fuel costs as well as protecting the children riding on the buses from exposure to the emissions and particulate spewed from traditional school buses.
Motiv in a Nutshell
Motiv is at its core, a software company. The Motiv team has been working hard for 8 years to develop products to bring electric vehicle technology to market and has carved out a unique niche for itself over that time. Pizza notwithstanding, Motiv’s core competency is in electric vehicle operating system development. Motiv has essentially built the software brain (with over the air updates!) for electric vehicles supported by a core suite of automotive-grade hardware and embedded controllers that Motiv builds in-house in Hayward, California.
This mastery of bringing the components together in a seamless way has enabled Motiv to develop turnkey solutions directly to lower volume EV manufacturers that don’t have the resources to invest in the R&D and control system development. In support of that direction, Motiv has pursued certification from the big vehicle manufacturers that build the chassis used by the majority of custom vehicle builders.
“Motiv is the only Ford-approved electric powertrain technology for use in Ford’s commercial chassis.”
Motiv’s strength is revealed in lower volume, higher mix vehicle companies. The medium and heavy duty vehicle market is exactly that, with each transit company, shuttle bus company, and refuse truck company spec’ing out their vehicles individually based on their unique requirements. Motiv’s custom real-time operating environment allows manufacturers to focus on the vehicle — and eventually the motor and batteries — while relying on Motiv to develop, deliver and maintain the software and components that bring the package together into a single unit.
Motiv is a Technology Supplier
Jim shared that he sees Motiv as the technology supplier for the deal as it takes off-the-shelf hardware components like motors, batteries, and wiring and brings them all together to sing in concert.
“Motiv is the technology provider for these buses. Really what we develop is the software for electric trucks and buses and we provide that software along with the key hardware parts: batteries, motors and power electronics to Trans Tech Bus in this case.”
The deal kicked off 18 months ago when CARB opened up requests for proposals to bring low to no emission medium-duty vehicles into California. Of that larger deal, there was only one option awarded for school buses and of the suppliers which made proposals for the deal, Motiv was selected because it was able to put more buses on the road, put them in disadvantaged communities and positively impact the environment for children specifically.
Clean Air Vehicle Incentives
With so much of the funding for the buses coming from the California Air Resources Board (CARB), I wanted to get Jim’s perspective on whether the 13 electric bus deal was only viable due to the massive amount of incentive money or if that money was actually driving down the long term costs of the buses and helping school districts get comfortable with the new electric technology. Jim is very optimistic about the market today and noted that,
“We are at a really interesting time in the market as far as catalyzing movement for electric heavy duty vehicles in general and for school buses in particular. On may 5th, the South Coast Air Quality Management District approved $8 million in funding for 33 all-electric school buses.”
Jim noted that with the incentives, school districts are challenged to convert fleets to electric, saying:
“There is still a gap in the funding as far as school districts being able to buy electric school buses without any incentive”
As with other electric vehicle companies, this is largely due to the batteries. Jim noted that “Batteries are still expensive, and incentives bridge the gap, but we’re getting there,” noting that its battery costs were still much higher than those being shared publicly by industry giants with higher volumes like Tesla and GM. Batteries remain the single most expensive item in electric vehicles and Jim shared that he is hopeful that based on the current industry trends, the collective scale of the industry will continue to drive battery costs down which will make electric vehicles more affordable for everyone.
As far as the incentives go, they are nothing new for CARB or for schools, so the budget is there and well established systems exist to connect school districts and CARB:
“For the last 20 years, the South Coast Air Quality Management District [in Southern California] has been buying natural gas buses for all the school districts in their air basin, in the LA air basin, in the South Coast AQMD region. So they are kind of used to buying clean school buses when the school districts don’t have money. Now that they are funding the cleanest school buses, zero emission school buses is kind of a natural evolution of their program and one that works out.”
A Different Take on Batteries
Motiv uses a unique chemistry for its school bus batteries that might not be familiar to many readers, and the reasons for their selection are varied but make a lot of sense when broken down.
“Today, our preferred chemistry for school buses is Sodium Nickel. It’s a little different because it’s not a lithium family chemistry. It’s not lithium iron phosphate or lithium ion or any of those. It’s actually based on just sodium and chlorine — so it’s table salt, sodium chloride — and nickel.”
The sodium nickel batteries Motiv uses are thermally managed to ensure they deliver the estimated range, no matter the weather. This is something we don’t see with lithium based chemistries. On my 2,600 mile Tesla road trip from Ohio to California, I drove in sub-zero temperatures and was hit with a double whammy of range impacts. First, the battery itself takes a ~20% capacity hit from the cold weather and second, if I turned on the heating, it would further erode my range.
Not having to worry about the battery itself derating in hot and cold weather is a huge advantage. Jim notes that the thermally managed sodium nickel delivers on this challenge:
“The sodium nickel batteries are also thermally managed so we don’t derate in very hot weather or very cold weather which is unique. Lithium ion batteries, unless they are thermally managed, which is uncommon in the bus and truck and heavy vehicle industry, they derate pretty substantially in cold weather so we don’t have that issue.”
Motiv Puts Safety First
It is difficult to talk about batteries without talking about the safety implications of each chemistry. This is especially important with school buses, which are tasked with transporting loads of children which first and foremost depends on keeping the kids safe. A fire in a school bus could have disastrous consequences, so it was reassuring to hear just how much focus Motiv puts on safety, from the battery chemistry on up.
Motiv selected the sodium nickel chemistry for the school buses it works on for a number of reasons:
“It’s 100% recyclable, which is not true of lithium based chemistries. Two, it doesn’t have any flammable liquid electrolytes. On your lithium-based batteries, if you have damage or punctures to the battery, you run the risk of leaking electrolytes which is bad stuff and flammable. With the sodium nickel batteries, you don’t have that. They are actually the safest batteries out there and we think that’s really important for school buses.”
Knowing that it is easier to focus on preventing an issue than to mitigate the impact from an issue, the Motiv team located the batteries in the safest place on the bus:
“We package all our batteries between the frame rails on the vehicle so they are as safe as a fuel tank, for example. We think that’s important too because if the batteries are outside the frame rails, they are subject to damage or getting crushed in the event of a bus being in an accident. We certainly think a lot about safety when choosing batteries, especially for school buses.”
A Good Fit for Fleets
It is not difficult to understand how a fleet manager would want to move from a diesel fleet of buses to an electric fleet. They are familiar with the high operating costs of diesel that ebb and flow with the market, the smell of the thick, billowing clouds of exhaust they emit and the delicate children they transport. The prospect of a bus that would be able to do all the transporting without the trail of black clouds following it around sounds like a Disney movie, especially with the promise of tens of thousands of dollars in funding supporting lower operating costs.
On top of that, the burden of investing millions of dollars of high profile, public money into a completely new technology from a new OEM poses what might seem like a risky proposition…or at least it would have 3 years ago. Motiv has helped fleet managers to round the corner and get beyond that uncertainty by putting a real product, not just an idea, in front of them. In recent months, Motiv has started to show off its vehicles and let fleet managers take them for a spin.
“I think we’re to a point where school fleet managers want electric. What’s changed over the last 6-12 months is that we’re there. Fleet managers can get behind the wheel of an electric school bus and drive them around.”
The reaction has been warm, to say the least. Requests for CARB funding from school districts for zero emission buses now regularly exceed the funds allocated as school bus fleet managers see first-hand just how well they perform.
“They are impressed at how well they drive around and how good they are at their job”
Fleet managers are not alone. Motiv has received awards for its all-electric linen delivery trucks and for its USPS delivery vehicle proposal. Riders, parents, school districts and fleet managers are coming around to the fact that zero emission vehicles are cheaper to operate, provide a better experience for passengers, and improve air quality for the areas they operate in. The future is bright for Motiv as it continues its mission to free fleets from fossil fuels, one vehicle at a time.
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