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Electric SUVs: A smaller footprint for big vehicles

Converting existing gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs into hybrid and electric vehicles gains traction.

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And that’s the aim of Ali Emadi, president of fledgling Hybrid Electric Vehicle Technologies, a Chicago spinoff of the Illinois Institute of Technology. His young company has just converted its first Ford F-150 pickup truck from a 16 m.p.g. gas hog into a plug-in hybrid that gets up to 41 m.p.g. gasoline equivalent.

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“Our technology could be applied to almost any vehicle from SUVs to pickup trucks, buses, or even school buses,” Dr. Emadi says. “The important issue is that when you apply our technology to larger vehicles – trucks and buses – the fuel economy savings and return on investment are much more attractive.”

Unlike Reid’s all-electric approach, Emadi’s company plans to add an electric drive system to an existing internal combustion engine to create in essence a retrofitted plug-in hybrid vehicle that runs primarily on electricity. But once the battery is depleted after 15 miles or so, it can continue running on its internal combustion engine while recapturing braking energy just like a standard hybrid.

Emadi is in talks with potential customers. Big commercial fleets of pickup trucks, SUVs, and vans seem likely to be the first arena where the economics line up and gas-guzzler conversions get the go-ahead.

FedEx, the big delivery company, began retrofitting some of its trucks to standard hybrid models. But its president, Frederick Smith, says that, in the long term, the company “would likely convert a substantial portion of our fleet to the new plug-in hybrid technology.”

Bright Automotive, an Anderson, Ind., startup, has its sights set on building a new commercial 100 m.p.g. plug-in hybrid van it calls the IDEA. But until it wins funding it is focusing on converting Volkswagen’s Transporter van from a 15 to 22 m.p.g. vehicle to a plug-in hybrid workhorse that goes 22 miles on all-electric and 57 m.p.g. across its 50-mile daily drive cycle.

Earlier last month, Inglewood, Calif., announced it had tapped REV Technologies, a company in Vancouver, British Columbia, to convert its existing fleet of 21 Ford Escape SUVs into all-electric vehicles that get 100 miles on a charge.

“When you just look at the sheer number of cars on the road, they’re not going away anytime soon,” says Jay Giraud, president of REV. “People are saying, ‘I want to keep driving what I’ve got – I just want it to be electric.’ ”

Making a similar point in dramatic fashion, Raser Technologies in Provo, Utah, unveiled a converted plug-in hybrid “extended range” Hummer that gets 100 m.p.g., according to the company. Raser is trying to sell its technology to a manufacturer and has no current plans to convert existing vehicles, a spokesman says.

Which leaves Reid wondering when gas prices will rise high enough that individual consumers begin converting their beloved SUVs, vans, and pickup trucks. He also wonders why those fat federal tax credits of $7,500 for new plug-in hybrids like the upcoming Chevy Volt don’t yet apply to converted all-electric vehicles or plug-in hybrids that accomplish the same fuel savings and environmental benefits. Why not a “cash for conversions?” Kramer adds.

“If the government would help with a reasonable tax credit, you’d get all these entrepreneurs like me converting all kinds of vehicles for maybe $10,000,” Reid says. If gas rose to $4 or more a gallon, he figures his SUV conversion to electric-vehicle kits would be selling like hotcakes.

“The way I see it, Americans have a love affair with their SUVs,” he says. “None of my friends want anything to do with little cars – no matter how high [the price of] gas goes.”