Published on October 1st, 2019 | by Kyle Field0
Pulling Back The Curtain At Electric Powertrain Builder Lightning Systems
October 1st, 2019 by Kyle Field
Lightning Systems invited* CleanTechnica to visit its Loveland, Colorado headquarters to get the inside scoop on what the company has been working on and more importantly, where it’s headed in the future.
10-year-old Lightning Systems was founded as a builder of hydraulic hybrids before pivoting towards fully electric powertrains 2 years ago. While at the facility, we talked with folks ranging from the newest hires on the factory floor bolting powertrains together all the way up the chain to CEO Tim Reeser. *Lightning Systems paid for CleanTechnica to attend Lightning Day 2019 at its headquarters in Loveland, Colorado.
Reeser talked through the current state of the company, from its roots as a hybrid powertrain builder to where the company is today. “We started out originally selling hydraulic hybrids,” Reeser said. “Today what you’ll see is that we’ve transitioned entirely to electric powertrains.” The change in business strategy came directly from customer requests. Reeser said that several large customers began requesting fully electric powertrains and that was enough for him to step back from the day to day to start mapping out what a fully electric Lightning Systems would look like.
Why Electrify Trucks?
“We are trying to solve a real problem,” Reeser said. “Air quality very much matters and a lot of what we see ourselves addressing is a significant air quality issue that exists.” When addressing the group of customers, employees, and media, Reeser encouraged the group to electrify their fleets as a means of addressing the local impacts of tailpipe emissions.
The message shifts the focus away from the less obvious impacts of global climate change and instead brings the focus back home. As we have seen in countries ranging from some of the most pollution-ridden cities in China up to the idyllic Stuttgart, Germany, local air quality can be the one rallying cry we can all get behind. Nobody wants to see their families and friends suffer from the effects of local pollution.
The Lightning Systems Lineup
Reeser took the problem head-on and along with the team at Lightning Systems, has built up an impressive line of fully electric powertrains for vehicles that fleet managers are already familiar with. Dropping a new electric powertrain into a Ford Transit or Chevy 6500 gives fleet managers all the benefits of electric vehicles without having to redesign their operations, budgets, and maintenance schedules for a completely new vehicle.
It also means that all of the vehicles Lightning Systems builds powertrains for can be fitted with all of the lift gates, flatbeds, and accessories needed to get work done. These aren’t new vehicles, but rather, an improved, more efficient versions of the vehicles fleet managers have been using for decades.
Having been in business for more than a decade sets Lightning Systems apart from the competition. The company is building fully electric vehicle powertrains that represent the next logical step forward in the company’s product lineup.
“We’re building powertrains today,” Reeser said.
“It’s not vaporware, it’s not fake news. We’re shipping those to a customer. They’re going to Kansas City where they get installed immediately following the truck manufacturing by Ford on the Ford Transit. They get installed and they immediately are being shipped to a customer who is immediately putting them on the road. So this isn’t a first-look pilot. This isn’t a little test or a free test. These are paid for products that we build today in a production way that’s not vaporware.”
The Lightning Systems Factory
Touring the factory, the production floor on the Lightning Systems assembly line was buzzing with activity as powertrains were assembled one step at a time, from the drop-in frame mount. Motors, high voltage wiring, controllers, and more were bolted onto what would eventually become a drop-in replacement for the internal combustion powertrain that normally propels the vehicles.
“The way this product is integrated, it literally slides right into the original engine mounts and the original transmission mounts of the Ford Transit,” Reeser said. “It allows this thing to be installed in about two days.”
Show Me The Money
Today’s electric vehicles tend to have higher up-front cost that translates to inflated capital purchase prices for fleet managers. Farther down the line, the lower operating costs of the vehicles in the form of lower fuel and maintenance translate to lower expense budgets. Balancing capital and expense to deliver a strong value proposition is the big challenge for builders of fully electric fleet vehicles and it is all built on the promise of vehicles that will stand the test of time.
Lightning Systems has been building fleet vehicles for a decade now and has built its business on delivering quality products that last. Reeser shared his perspective with us on balancing cost, quality, and schedule. “Good, fast, or cheap. You get to pick two of the three,” he said. “We wanted something fast to market and we wanted something good, so cheap was something we had to compromise on. We couldn’t go cheap. It had to be a nice product.”
California’s Heavy Vehicle Incentive Program rebates help take the edge off of the up-front purchase price for fleet managers with rebates ranging from $50-55k for the Ford Transit to a staggering $150-165k for a transit bus. The rebates not only take the sting off of any premium fleet managers might be paying to go electric, they also give the long term cost of ownership equation for fully electric fleet vehicles a boost in favor of a fully electric vehicle that offers the promise of lower expenses over the long haul. Lightning Systems’ home state of Colorado also offers a robust array of EV rebates for fleet managers to take advantage of.
The Road Ahead
Lightning Systems has established itself as a builder of robust electric vehicle powertrain solutions for fleets that seek to improve upon the platforms fleet managers have built their businesses around. Offering fully electric powertrains for industry stalwarts like the Ford Transit and the GM 6500 lets fleet managers transition fleets to fully electric offerings without having to compromise.
“The beauty of using a platform like a Ford Transit or a GM 6500 is you can get lifts, you can get shelves,” Reeser said. “It’s not a custom, proprietary platform so you have everything you want for your ecosystem and then when the driver gets in the vehicle, the switches are in the same place, the dash is in the same place. It works and acts like the OEM vehicle did, except better.”
Looking to the future, Lightning Systems plans to continue building out its product line with even more powertrain offerings. “Today, our bus product is a re-power only. The rest of our products are available as new or re-power,” Reeser said, but that is likely to change. Keep an eye out for a fully electric powertrain offering from Lightning Systems for transit buses in addition to a new 5500 series offering.
Costs will continue to come down for Lightning Systems as a function of both lithium-ion battery prices and scale. Lightning Systems is currently fielding orders in the tens of vehicles at a time, producing hundreds of vehicles per year. As orders move into the hundreds and overall volumes move into the thousands and tens of thousands, order quantities go up, driving prices down.
The overall progress of the industry in this regard is also a driving force. As they say, a rising tide raises all ships, and this is true with electric vehicles as well. As more and more countries and companies go electric, all of the small components required to build electric vehicles go down in price, lowering the bar to get into an EV.
Finally, look for innovation on the financing side of the game. In order to get a leg up on pricing versus internal combustion vehicles, Reeser and his team are exploring leasing options that have the potential to overcome the steep capital purchase price of electric fleet vehicles. Spreading the higher up-front purchase price over the longer tail of ownership has the potential to quickly give electric vehicles a leg up on the competition.
Lightning Systems’ electric vehicle powertrains are built at home in America. The company is cranking powertrains out each and every day from its factory in Loveland, Colorado. It is an impressive thing to behold and to drive. We learned a ton during our visit and will be keeping an eye on more fully electric powertrain options at ever-improving prices from the Lightning Systems team in the coming months and years.