The Workhorse N-Gen sounds at first description like a Hollywood spy-movie cliché: a near silent electric powertrain within a white van with a rather frumpy, nondescript exterior—and a little drone aircraft deployed from the roof to make the final move to the target.
Its reason for being is much more pragmatic, however; it’s the latest in a growing line of delivery vehicles from Workhorse of Ohio, positioned for the greening of corporate fleets while keeping ownership costs extremely low. The N-Gen is designed to replace a generation of small delivery vans powered by gasoline and diesel engines. Although final specs aren’t out yet, it’s expected to weigh hundreds of pounds less than those older vans, thanks to a lightweight composite body. Electric motors will provide about 100 miles of plug-in power, while a small onboard gasoline-fired range-extending engine will add another 75 miles of range. Workhorse claims up to 65 miles per gallon equivalent (MPGe) for the N-Gen.
Although Workhorse has been teasing its W-15 range-extended electric pickup (pictured below), which we briefly drove earlier this year, for much longer, it’s the N-Gen that will reach the market first; production will start in the first quarter of next year. “It’s coming out first because regulatory-wise it’s just easier,” explained CEO Stephen Burns, explaining that it’s closely related to the vehicle that’s a finalist in the United States Postal Service Next Generation Delivery Vehicles (NGDV) vetting process. Workhorse, in conjunction with truck outfitter VT Hackney, delivered its six prototype vehicles on time in September for evaluation. The USPS is expected to announce around March 1 what company gets the contract to build up to 180,000 vehicles over a time period of up to seven years.
Burns said that with the potential for high-volume production (and long-term support), lining up Tier 1 suppliers for the USPS project hasn’t been an issue. So it was a natural next step to develop a commercial-van version at the same time.
Panasonic (Tesla) Batteries, BMW Range Extender
The N-Gen and Workhorse’s W-15 pickup will share quite a lot, including their composite body construction. Burns told Car and Driver that they’ll use the same batteries: Panasonic 18650-format cells, a “commodity” format that is roughly AA size and essentially the same as is used in the Tesla Model S and Model X, among other vehicles. But what’s different is the range extender. While the production version of the W-15 will use a 1.5-liter three-cylinder BMW range extender, the N-Gen is going to use the 647-cc two-cylinder Kymco-built engine from the BMW i3, Burns said.
That’s because, while the van would only be aimed at commercial use, with well-defined driving loops and the range extender strictly as an emergency crutch, the pickup is being designed with a wider operating range—including sustaining its peak power after the battery is depleted.
Burns said the general public has given the electric pickup an unexpectedly strong reception, and now the company is trying to decide whether to build a consumer-focused version. “We’ve really been wrestling with it,” he said. “But we want to cut our teeth with fleets because that’s our DNA. We want to make sure we never disappoint them.”
The N-Gen has all-wheel drive, which is unusual for a commercial van. “These delivery guys have to go in all sorts of weather,” Burns said. Meanwhile, the company touts the low-floor design combined with the body-on-frame layout and standard pickup-truck ride height as providing a good blend of clearance, durability, and loading ease.
Workhorse says that its electric vehicles have already logged nearly two million miles and are in use in 14 states. The company has been ramping up production at an Indiana plant; this summer and fall, it made 143 of its larger E-Gen trucks for the United Parcel Service (out of a total order of 200 from UPS), and it is currently at a production rate of about three vehicles a day. W.B. Mason has also placed an order for those larger vehicles, Ryder is providing sales and support, and Workhorse has one other large order pending that Burns can’t yet talk about. With its current factory, Workhorse can make 60,000 vehicles of the roadgoing kind per year. And if the USPS contract happens? “We could probably fit more,” Burns added. “But it falls under ‘good problems to have.’ ”
It’s Really about the Last Mile
If you’re in the shipping logistics business—or if you have anything to do with e-commerce and shipping goods—“last-mile delivery” is what it’s all about. In the last mile or few miles of getting a parcel to its final destination, the costs ratchet up, and the task becomes more complex. It’s exactly what Workhorse appears to be trying to address with its approach, which embraces electrification and, when necessary, takes to the skies. According to a report last year from McKinsey & Company, 60 percent of consumers are either in favor of or indifferent to drone delivery.
Workhorse hasn’t yet said much about the HorseFly drone that comes with the N-Gen, but it’s a model that the company engineered in-house. It will deploy from the vehicle and will be software linked, so that it might be able to take a small package to a nearby cul-de-sac, for instance, while a larger one is being delivered.
This isn’t the only company vying for the last-mile delivery business and its electric future. One particularly well-funded effort is Chanje, a startup that has managed to recruit former executives from Volkswagen, Tesla, and one earlier fleet-focused company, Smith Electric Vehicles.
And a Hybrid Helicopter for Two
Workhorse also has a larger, manned aircraft under development. The unique eight-blade SureFly Octocopter, which the company revealed at the Paris Air Show this summer, can hold the pilot plus one other occupant. It’s also an electrified product, but with power sources prioritized the opposite way compared to its trucks; there, a gasoline engine provides power to the electrically driven prop system, and twin battery packs serve as a five-minute power backup, allowing the pilot enough time to land if they run out of fuel or the engine fails.
Burns said that the company is hoping for its first manned flight of the vehicle toward the end of the year or the first week of January and hinted that there may be a first public demo at the 2018 CES technology show in early January.
Considering Workhorse’s wide portfolio of intended products, from larger delivery trucks to vans and pickups and from copters to drones, what comes as a complete surprise is that the company operates in the minor margins. A third-quarter financial report this last week listed total operating expenses, including R&D, of $8.4 million for the quarter. That’s small change; by comparison, Tesla’s R&D spending in the same quarter was at about $332 million, and BMW’s was $4.1 billion. Burns agrees that while they’ve done a lot with a little, they need a partner to see the full vision through.
Whatever the future, Workhorse has already succeeded in being an anti-Tesla in many respects. Fleet managers live outside the retail hype in a reality of uptime, reliability, and operating costs, and while Workhorse’s vehicles, the N-Gen included, are hardly icons of design, they target those needs to a T.
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