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ALTe Gains Orders/Financing/Facilities for Combustion Engine Conversions
Mar 23, 2010 (From the CalCars-News archive)
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What company will be first to make a business in large-scale conversions of internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles? It's a new race, with a promising new contender. ALTe, a Michigan company with a management team experienced in automotive technology and business, has just come out of stealth. It made its debut not at "alternative fuels" event but at the 2010 National Truck Equipment Association (NTEA) Work Truck Show and Green Truck Summit, March 11 in St. Louis. The company is at http://www.altellc.com . Below we summarize and outline its designs, achievements, and future plans, including excerpts from the company's released information and a Forbes Magazine profile. And we compare its technology with another promising gas-guzzler conversion.

ALTe is big news. It's among the positive developments pointing to the potential for CalCars' "Big Fix" campaign to succeed alongside the arrival of new plug-in vehicles. There's movement at the Postal Service to begin to electrify its fleet. Proposed Congressional legislation, backed by leaders of the Postal Regulatory Commission, is building support. USPS has picked five companies to demonstrate plug-in technology on retrofit delivery trucks -- see http://www.edrive.org/­news . Candidates are responding to our efforts to recruit a SEER (successful serial entrepreneur) to lead a global retrofit industry http://www.calcars.org/­calcars-news/­1093.html . Check for new developments at CalCars-News.

At http://www.calcars.org/­ice-conversions.html we list the companies that have announced they're working toward volume production of PHEV and EV conversions of ICE vehicles. Among these -- and others still under wraps -- we know of none that have come as far as ALTe, both in production engineering and in assembling the team, resources, facilities, connections, and customers for volume retrofits.

The market opportunity is huge. ALTe says its designs could be applied to 80% of the vehicles found in our light-to-medium-duty fleet, including 70 million light trucks, 32 million light vans, 5 million medium trucks, and hundreds of thousands of commercial vans, shuttle buses, taxis, limos, military vehicles, etc. ALTe, looking at vehicles in fleets of five or more, finds almost eight million just at Ford.

MAJOR ACCOMPLISHMENTS AND GOALS

ALTe made a big splash when it unveiled its prototype Ford F-150 conversion (see 2 photos and 2 drawings at our ICE Conversions page). While we expect to see companies with many business models and technologies, ALTe already provides validation to the "Big Fix" strategy. We'll talk later about technical aspects; the company's promising accomplishments on the business side include:

  • FACILITIES & SOURCING: a 185,000 assembly plant in Auburn Hills, MI and a substantial supply chain.
  • FIRST ORDER: up to $60M/year from Gulf Stream Coach for 3,000 shuttle bus conversions for four years; other potential corporate and military vehicle retrofit projects (ALTe is working with the innovative U.S. Army TARDEC program).
  • FINANCING: $15 million committed or raised, raising $15M more; $18.3M in Michigan state incentives; application pending for $101M from the U.S. Department of Energy Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program. (This program funded large automakers as well as Tesla and Fisker; Bright Automotive is also waiting.) ALTe plans to produce retrofits eligible for the federal 10% buyer tax credit for conversions (maximum is $4,000 per vehicle).
  • SCHEDULE: customer evaluation prototypes by October 2010; with funds from expected, scaling up for mass production a year later.
  • STRATEGY: plans start with a retrofit business, expand to licensing of technology and selling components, and eventual partnerships with major and niche automakers for new vehicles.
  • DISTRIBUTION: plans include individual national accounts, big box retailers, partnering with a nationwide network of auto service centers, a network of dealers, fleet depots, and smaller garages.
  • INDUSTRY DOOR-OPENERS: joinig the Board of Directors are Thomas LaSorda, former Chrysler Group President and CEO, and Steven Landry, former Chrysler EVP of North American Sales and Marketing and Global Service and Parts.

EXCERPTS FROM COMPANY PRESS AND PRESENTATION MATERIALS

MISSION: "ALTe LLC is a Michigan-based technology company and mass producer of electric propulsion systems. ALTe is committed to leading the evolution of the automobile industry from gasoline-powered vehicles to electric technology. With a unique combination of Detroit and Silicon Valley automotive engineering experience, the ALTe team is dedicated to innovation, excellence in engineering and operations, and advancing sustainable mobility for mankind. The company will provide electric and plug in hybrid vehicles at a very significant scale, faster than any of the known automakers or potentially competing powertrain providers."

DESCRIPTION: "ALTe, LLC is an automotive supplier engaged in engineering, development, assembling and integrating of electro-mechanical automobile components and software to create Series Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicle (SPHEV) and pure electric vehicle powertrains. These powertrain systems deliver dramatic fuel economy improvements on the order of 60-200% when used in high mileage fleet applications. ALTe has targeted fleet applications, as the normal passenger car market does not drive enough miles per year to receive financial payback on the incremental cost incumbent in a hybrid or electric powertrain system."

"ALTe is positioning itself to be a "black box" turnkey system that is the "Intel Inside" for hybrid vehicles in the transportation industry. We plan to start production in the USA, but already have interest in 3 other countries and have low cost solutions that can work for developing nations. The company business plan is divided into two phases: initially we will be producing powertrain systems "kits" for use in the retrofit of used vehicles from normal internal combustion engine based vehicles to new series PHEV based vehicles. In the second phase, we will use these new Series PHEV powertrains installed in a rolling lightweight chassis to serve as the foundation for new families of vehicles serving the fleet and niche vehicle industry."

CEO: "We are very excited to unveil our new prototype vehicle at this important industry event," said John Thomas, CEO of ALTe LLC. "Though the prototype displays our technology as the powertrain system replacing a 4.6L gasoline V8 for the Ford F-150, the system can be applied to several vehicle types running a variety of fuels. This is due to the 'plug-and-play' modularity of our system, which enables the powertrain to expand or contract depending on the vehicle type. We believe our technology will lead the revolution of sustainable mobility."

MICHIGAN GOVERNOR: "We're pleased that ALTe has chosen Michigan and Auburn Hills for its new assembly facility, potentially generating more than a thousand new jobs in southeast Michigan," said Governor Jennifer M. Granholm. "This project further boosts our ongoing efforts to diversify the state's economy, and shows that businesses are continuing to choose Michigan because of our highly-skilled workers and competitive business climate."

COST BENEFITS: "uniquely ambitious in terms of timing and scale, with plans to launch in Q4 2011 and ramp up to 90,000 powertrains/year soon afterwards. The cost of retrofitting to ALTe's REEV powertrain is offset quickly by fuel savings in fleet vehicles driven 50,000 miles per year or more. The "payback" can be as short as one year. Furthermore, many corporate, regional and local fleet owners and operators are being forced to continue to use their current fleet as their replacement fund budgets have been drastically reduced. ALTe offers them, for the first time ever, a feasible option to extend the life of their fleet vehicles for several years where they also benefit from doubled fuel economy at an affordable incremental cost."

MARKETS: "ALTe will not be competing for a percentage of the new car market (11 million vehicles projected in 2010). The Company will be retrofitting a fraction of the 107 million light- medium trucks, many of which are in fleets in companies like SoCalEd, AT&T, Verizon and FedEx. Essentially, we are targeting 6.9% of the commercial fleet market or 1.36% of the commercial vehicle market. In addition, there are nearly 500,000 non-tactical military vehicles and ALTe is in discussions with the US Army TARDEC group to convert some of those vehicles."

JOBS: "ALTe will be increasing local employment as it engages many suppliers to produce ALTe designed motors, generators, controller, battery boxes, high voltage cables and high voltage chargers. The State of Michigan Economic Development Office estimates a 3.67 times multiplier for the ALTe 400 new direct jobs created resulting in a potential of 1,468 new jobs in the supply base and local community. At its peak volume, ALTe will be procuring $1.6B of parts from the supply base on an annual basis. The hybrid and electric supply base for ALTe is very excited and is organizing quickly. Evidence of this is demonstrated with Letters of Intent signed or in process with major suppliers such as A123 Systems, Dow-Kokam, Remy Motors, Nugen Motors, EE Trex charger inverters, Methode Electronics, Fiat-Chrysler, and others."

CALCARS TECH LEAD RON GREMBAN'S COMMENTS:

The conversion process consists of replacing most of a vehicle's whole drivetrain with its modular series hybrid system (like that in the Chevy Volt "extended range electric vehicle"). It can be sized for vehicles from pickup truck size on up through medium-sized trucks, vans, and light buses. Components/processes:

  • ENGINE: up to 5.4L gas or Diesel is replaced with a 2.0L or 3.3L gas engine driving one or two 82 kW permanent magnet (PM) generators.
  • AUTOMATIC TRANSMISSION: kept but re-tuned, with the torque converter removed to enable 90+% efficiency); the motor/generators connect to wheels through the transmission.
  • ACCESSORIES: retained but electrically driven.
  • MOTOR/GENERATORS: 2-3 82 kW PM, the same ones used for the engine-generator set.
  • BATTERY: 15-70 kWh Li-ion battery pack, depending on vehicle size, for up to 52 miles of pure electric (EV) driving per charge.
  • OPERATION: Vehicle is driven as an EV until the battery is depleted, then the engine is started to keep the battery from further discharge. The engine is not mechanically connected to the wheels.
  • PROJECTED FUEL ECONOMY: As a hybrid -- after a 40-50 mile all-electric range -- mileage expected to improve by 55-130% over the original vehicle (25-32 MPG vs. 14-16 MPG for an unconverted Ford F-150).
  • ATTENTION TO DETAIL, including a liquid battery cooling system, and additional weight of as little as 200 lb.
  • CONVERSION COSTS of as little as $21k per vehicle.

RON COMPARES ALTe WITH HEVT: Previously we've highlighted the prototype produced by Chicago-based Hybrid Electric Vehicle Technologies http://www.hevt.com . This F-150 retrofit uses a different design. Below is a similar description (with a caveat that HEVT is not nearly as far along as ALTe in designing a vehicle that can be efficiently and economically mass-produced), followed by Ron's general comments. HEVT's product is a series/parallel conversion:

  • ENGINE, TRANSMISSION, AND ACCESSORIES: retained as is (this means the engine must start periodically until the accessories are electrified in a later version).
  • MOTOR/GENERATOR: added behind and directly powering the differential, allowing EV driving with a stopped or idling engine (no transmission in the EV drive path increases mechanical EV efficiency but results in higher motor torque requirements and potentially lower motor efficiency).
  • BATTERY: Li-ion, sized as needed (approx. 20 kWh for 40-mile F-150 EV range).
  • OPERATION: Vehicle is driven as an EV until the battery is depleted, with the engine running accessories as needed; then the vehicle drives as a hybrid.
  • PROJECTED FUEL ECONOMY: As a hybrid -- after a 30 mile all-electric range -- expected improvement of 30% (current) - 60% (next generation), (20-26 MPG vs. 14-16MPG for an unconverted Ford F-150).
  • CONVERSION COSTS in high volumes are projected to be around $15,000, lower than for ALTe, as the engine is not replaced and only a single motor/generator is required.
  • PRODUCTION ENGINEERING: HEVT has not yet embarked on this process, which will affect design and costs
  • CONTROLS: Coordinated engine, transmission, and motor/generator control is very complex and difficult (much more so than for a series hybrid). This is HEVT's specialty.

Technologically, each method has advantages and disadvantages. Though comparisons also involve general differences between series and series/parallel PHEVs, my previous investigations have led me to conclude, despite strong claims by each technology's proponents, that the theoretical differences in efficiency between the two architectures may be eclipsed by implementation details and optimization. Replacing the engine (as does ALTe) allows downsizing, fine tuning, and manufacturing control of the whole drivetrain for efficiency and emissions. But it also entails the expense of a new engine and the mechanical systems to make it fit. If all but the basic concepts were equal (which they aren't), ALTe conversions could be expected to be both more expensive and more effective than HEVT conversions.

MEDIA COVERAGE: In addition to a brief story (with graphics) at Green Car Congress http://www.greencarcongress.com/­2010/­03/­alte-f150-20100312.html you can read the Forbes profile, "One Energy Startup's Tireless Quest For Capital" at http://www.forbes.com/­forbes/­2009/­1228/­entrepreneurs-alte-hybrid-trains-taxis-plug-needed.html. Excerpts:

Chief Executive John Thomas, a 47-year-old mechanical engineer and former head of the Michigan sedan program at electric-car maker Tesla, is expansive about Alte's potential. Consider, he says, the 13,500 sedan cabs in New York City, plus another 30,000 livery vehicles, mostly Lincoln Town Cars. "We want to replace the drive trains of every one of them," he declares. Retrofitting just a tiny fraction of the entire U.S. fleet inventory--including shuttle buses, commercial vans, limousines, police cars and post office trucks--could generate $2 billion in annual revenue by 2013. Then there's the global market: Thomas has met with the Moroccan government about converting that country's 100,000 taxis. He's also salivating over a Spanish mandate to have 1 million of the country's cars running hybrid or electric-drive trains by 2014.

Alte's leaders include cofounders W. Jeff DeFrank and Nam Thai-Tang. Both men came from the engineering ranks at Tesla and, before that, Ford Motor, where Thai-Tang logged 19 years. DeFrank also worked on nuclear reactors for the Navy. Chief Financial Officer Roy S. Clauss spent 30 years as an investment banker on Wall Street. Early this month ex-Chrysler chief executive Thomas LaSorda signed on as an investor and board member (he won't disclose the size of his stake). Says LaSorda: "I think the plan here will succeed because they're not going after markets that the big car companies target."

WATCH FOR MORE NEWS from ALTe and other ICE conversion startups, and, we hope, some of the larger integration firms. For more, see the two photos and two graphics at http://www.calcars.org/­ice-conversions.html -- and be sure to catch the animation of its 13-hour installation process on ALTe's products page http://www.altellc.com/­product.php .

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