It's been a while since we've checked in with ALTe and its plans to convert big work vehicles like the Ford F-150 into plug-in hybrids. So, when we saw a demonstration vehicle sitting outside the San Jose Convention Center at the Plug In 2014 Conference last week, we had to get a closer look. When we did, we realized that it's been quite some time since we've been in a Ride & Drive vehicle that was all beat to heck.
The reason for the well-worn F-150 with 30,000 miles on it is that ALTe has been showing off its extended-range EV technology to lots of people all around the country, and Kyle Maki has been the man on the scene more often than not. "This one, I've taken all over the country," he told AutoblogGreen. "I've wore out that seat, I think. The only reason this one wasn't driven here was because we were in Charlotte [NC] last week and I didn't want to take a chance and not make it in time for this event." In other words, ALTe is out there, ginning up excitement for the idea of a plug-in hybrid Ford with an electric range of up to 40 miles and which can then continue on gas for another 360 miles at around about 25 miles per gallon. ALTe wants to not only convert new vehicles but it also offers retrofits for fleets that are happy with their current fleet. The company offers converted versions of the Ford E350 and E450 utility vehicles now but the near-mythical F-150 PHEV is still "coming soon." Yes, orders are now being accepted, but you will be forgiven if you think this is all happening on a slow time scale.
It's been quite some time since we've been in a Ride & Drive vehicle that was all beat to heck.
There are simply a lot of things to do before ALTe can sell the truck. ALTe is currently attempting to join Ford's EQVM program, which is the electric version of the standard Qualified Vehicle Modifiers program. The QVM program requires coachbuilders to "be successfully evaluated by Ford Motor Company on criteria such as engineering, the manufacturing process, quality control, and adherence to Ford and Lincoln Divisions guidelines." Qualified applicants must also meet all applicable Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, conform to Ford/Lincoln conversion guidelines and agree to be inspected annually as well as have a "commitment to continuous improvement."
Maki has a simpler explanation. "It basically means you're a preferred supplier, a Tier 1, if you will," he said. "[Ford] has been through our architecture, they understand what we're doing, they approve what we're doing and they're going to team up with us and allow us to go into production with this vehicle and still warranty their part of the vehicle." Maki said there are three companies vying to join the EQVM program, where there are three available positions. He's confident ALTe will get the nod. "Based on the Edison Electrical Institute, [Ford] decided that the F-150 AWD is the fleet truck and the one they want to focus on. We've been doing F-150s for five years now and we believe we're the leader in that. We know how these trucks work, inside and out."
Maki is extremely confident in the PHEV. "We build trucks and we like to hand the keys off. Go test it, go run through the mountains for two weeks. If it breaks, call me, but it's not going to. Worst case scenario is it breaks and we learn something."
Related GalleryPlug In 2014: ALTe Ford F-150 PHEV
Trouble is, first-hand experience does not a legal vehicle make. Also slowing progress is the fact that ALTe developed two powertrains. First, the one in the truck on display in San Jose, was a series hybrid powertrian, which has two Remy traction motors attached to the stock transmission. While this works for demonstration purposes, it's the company's parallel set-up that will be coming to market. It is going through EPA testing now and, if it passes, it will be the only one that ALTe will offer for sale. "The series mode that we designed is actually harder system to develop," Maki said. "It's also harder to pass EPA certification, so the quickest way to market for us right now is to go the parallel hybrid." Why is it harder with the series? "You just change so much under the hood. You take the stock engine out and reconfigure it. Now you've got to re-certify the motor. When you go the parallel way, Ford's spent a bunch of money getting that engine certified with that truck with the EPA."
ALTe tries to levy the work of other companies as it builds the PHEVs. The 21.5-kWh battery that is tucked under the frame rails under the cab, for example, comes from A123. So, did the A123 bankruptcy set ALTe's plans back the way it did for Via Motors? Maki said no. "To be honest with you, ALTe was going through a restructuing at about the same time. We went from 60 employees to about seven." Maki himself was cut, but then brought back when the company began to grow again. ALTe now has a staff of around 35 and is once again dreaming big.
Ideally, ALTe vehicles would be built alongside the V8s at Ford's plant, Maki said, but for now, ALTe is planning on getting gliders and converting them for customers. This is dependent on ALTe qualifying for the EQVM program. "As of right now, we're an outside party and they don't have to talk to us and they don't have to support us in any way," he said. "They like us and they like what we do, they appreciate us trying to help out. This is a task they can't afford to do, unfortunately, there aren't enough fleet vehicles for them to justify doing this. That's where we come into play."
"Fleet customers, they've been burned by these EV companies that have gone out of business." – Kyle Maki
Becoming an EQVM partner would give customers confidence in the product, Maki said. "Fleet customers, they've been burned by these EV companies that have gone out of business and now they're stuck with, like Smith Electric trucks or Enova," he said. "Nobody knows anything about them. They want to make sure, before they buy a truck, that they have a connection to be serviced by Ford or GM or whoever you're working with and to make sure that you're going to be around. These next steps are the keys to us being there."
A short video about ALTe from a Bay Area CBS station and a blueprint short vaguely about the ALTe powertrains are available below.