Most American pickup trucks are rugged, multi-tasking, powerful. Cincinnati-based Workhorse Group Inc. wants to add electric to that list.
The manufacturer, known for its battery-electric delivery vehicles and aerial drones, said Monday that it will begin developing full-size plug-in electric pickup trucks to deliver in 2018 for fleet use.
The Workhorse W-15 light-duty work truck, targeted at less than $50,000 before incentives, would be the first of its kind built in the U.S., Workhorse said. North Carolina-based power company Duke Energy has already signed a non-binding letter of interest for at least 500 trucks by 2019. The City of Orlando also said it will purchase the vehicles.
“Pickup trucks are the number one vehicle segment in America — we asked why there isn’t an alternative pickup truck in that category,” said Workhorse Group founder and chief executive Stephen Burns. “Amongst fleets there is a need and a desire for this.”
The W-15 vehicle will incorporate a version of the E-Gen electric technology already used in the company’s medium-duty designs and will be able to charge using standard J1772 stations.
The truck’s Panasonic 18650 Li-ion batteries will have an estimated 80-mile battery range and regenerative braking capabilities. If the vehicle runs out of juice, it’ll be able to revert to a range extender in the form of a gasoline-fueled generator.
“For the here and now, a range extender is the way to have your cake and eat it too,” Burns said.
Fleet pickups tend to be used as service vehicles. The electric truck, designed from the ground-up by Workhorse, will have 4-wheel drive and the same ground clearance as a standard pickup. The towing capability is targeted at 5,500 pounds and the truck will have a receiver hitch built into the custom chassis. It will handle a payload of up to 2,200 pounds.
The battery pack will be manufactured in Cincinnati, while the truck itself will be built at the company’s factory in Union City, Ind.
Some analysts are skeptical, noting that Workhorse is entering a notoriously competitive industry segment.
Despite being more expensive than most passenger cars, trucks are enjoying an upswing in popularity due to cheap gasoline and major advances in fuel economy. Pickups accounted for 15.2 percent of the 14.5 million vehicles Americans have purchased so far this year, according to industry research firm Autodata Corp.
“The pickup market in the U.S. is the hardest nut to crack in the entire auto industry worldwide,” said Dave Sullivan, product analysis manager for consultancy and marketing research firm AutoPacific. “It consists of the most loyal buyers — just ask Nissan and Toyota how tough it is!”
Customers in the full-size category tend to be resistant to change, favoring homegrown brands over foreign ones. Ford Motor Co. leads the market, selling 661,198 F-Series pickups so far this year and grabbing 36.1 percent of the full-size pickup market.
General Motors Co. has 654,813 in combined Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra truck sales, while Fiat Chrysler Automobiles has sold 404,977 Ram models.
But mid-size pickups have become one of the fastest growing segments of the U.S. auto market, appealing to consumers looking for an easily-maneuvered urban truck. Sales of vehicles such as Toyota’s Tacoma and Chevrolet’s Colorado have surged more than 25 percent to 371,072 through the first 10 months of this year.
Several companies are also investigating pickups that guzzle less fuel. Ford and Toyota Motor Corp. are both working on hybrid truck models. VIA Motors builds electrified versions of existing truck and van models incorporating its eREV powertrain, which the company claims offers up to 400 miles of range. Tesla Motors has said it plans to build an electric pickup.
Still, Sullivan said, “it’s going to be very difficult to break into this market. The market for EV pickups is very small and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.”
But Burns said Workhorse Group will persevere because of its target customer: fleets, “our DNA, our core business,” he said. Unlike consumers, fleet owners tend to prioritize bottom line over brand name.
“With fleets, you either go the luxury, high-end route, or you figure out a way to make it pay,” Burns said. “Everyone wants to be green, but only if it pencils out. If it saves them money on fuel and maintenance, they’ll buy it.”
In addition to lower emissions, the Workhorse pickup will help bring down ownership costs for fleets by limiting fuel and maintenance costs as well as the expense of converting existing fossil fuel vehicles to an electric powertrain, according to the company. A sizeable frontal crumple zone and low center of gravity will keep the vehicles safe.
“If we were coming out with just another gasoline or diesel pickup truck, I wouldn’t say we could break loyalties,” Burns said. “We knew we had to be 500 percent better — that’s the only way some non-incumbent can come out with something that’s fiercely competitive, by creating something completely different that changes the rules.”
Randy Wheeless, a spokesman for Duke, said its agreement with Workhorse is contingent on whether “these trucks can deliver what they say they can deliver.” The company already has 2,500 heavy-duty trucks in its fleet and wants to add more to its current stable of 100 electric vehicles, which includes passenger cars such as the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf as well as converted trucks.
Wheeless said Duke wants “to be supportive of electric vehicle technology” and believes it has “a lot of promise in the nation.”
“But there’s still prototypes to be built and for us to use to get some real-life data so there’s still a lot to do there,” he said.
Trucks.com staff writer Clarissa Hawes contributed to this report.