We Drive Workhorse’s Electric Pickup; Ryder Signs Up to Support It
May 4, 2017 at 2:24 pm by Bengt Halvorson
We’ve just driven a plug-in electric pickup truck that might, beginning next year, be as close as your local Ryder outlet. Workhorse Group has announced that Ryder, the commercial truck-rental company, will be its strategic sales and service partner, via all 800 of its locations, not only for Workhorse’s larger medium-duty, range-extended electric commercial trucks but for its upcoming light-duty pickup, the W-15. It’s a big step toward what Workhorse seeks: success in the fleet market with a pickup suited for local utility, construction, or delivery work, operating most of the time without tailpipe emissions.
Workhorse CEO Steve Burns thinks his firm stands a better chance than other electric-vehicle upstarts for several reasons. One is the sheer economics of it: Fleet buyers look at a 20-year picture for operating costs, he says. That includes public utilities, from which Workhorse has already seen interest and taken orders. Workhorse anticipates that for those keeping inside the 80-mile range of the W-15’s all-electric driving mode, the truck will earn back its premium in just two years. The company projects that over 20 years, a single such truck will save a commercial fleet operator $170,000.
“We’re going to cost a little bit more [for the initial purchase], but if we can show they’ll make up that cost quickly, we’ll win over a lot of fleet managers,” Burns says. We’d peg that entry price at about $50,000.
Another argument Burns presents is that Workhorse is no newbie; it already builds hybrid delivery trucks for UPS, DHL, and Ryder, among others, in the company’s (former Navistar) plant in Union City, Indiana. “We cut our teeth on fleets,” says Burns. “We know that business.”
The key make-or-break moment for Workhorse could come later this year, when the federal government announces its company of choice to build the next-generation mail-delivery vehicle—a vehicle that the U.S. Postal Service expects to purchase at a rate of 40,000 per year, up to a refreshed fleet of 180,000. The candidate list is now down to six companies, with Workhorse part of the bid from VT Hackney. Although Burns insists that Workhorse will build the W-15 either way, he dithers on some of the electric pickup’s up-close details and interface items, saying those may depend on its volume and major customers and whether the deal for the closely related mail truck is on or off.
Electric at the Core, But No Skimping on the Range Extender
The W-15 is designed primarily for those who plan to use the truck mostly within its all-electric range; but it also has a robust range extender aboard—the BMW i3’s 647-cc two-cylinder engine, in this one-off driving concept—that enables it to travel longer distances. The stated range is 310 miles on an 11-gallon tank of gas. This also allows for heating or cooling the cab in extreme climates without worry about driving range. In this mode, Workhorse anticipates EPA ratings of 32 mpg city, 28 highway. “ “Innovation can’t really come from the incumbents.” – Steve Burns, Workhorse CEO ”
The company could have found a cheaper range extender, Burns admits, but Workhorse picked the BMW engine because of its reputation and support horizon. “For fleet managers, this isn’t just a generator married to an internal-combustion engine; we see these things as insurance policies,” he says. Payload and hauling capability do matter to some fleet buyers, and the company plans to set up the W-15 for a maximum payload of 2200 pounds, with max towing at 5000 pounds. Higher-capacity versions called W-25 and W-35 could be in the works, too.
In the production truck, the BMW twin will be swapped out for a larger engine—a 1.5-liter turbo three-cylinder—so that it can keep up with range-extending duties without cutting into performance. DC fast charging isn’t part of the plan because of that range extender and because the vast majority of fleet customers will charge overnight. The truck’s 60-kWh battery, made up of Panasonic 18650 cells—a proven commodity in the Tesla Model S and Model X, among other vehicles—is one that Workhorse expects will be available in replacement form for many years. In the interest of battery longevity, Workhorse plans to use only 40 kWh of that capacity; it also managed the configuration so that it promises 7.2 kW of exportable power for job-site needs.
Leave Your Hard Hat in the Frunk
Far forward, the Workhorse W-15 has a frunk (front trunk)—an enclosed area with enough space for a couple of hard hats and safety vests. The little BMW engine mounts in the rearmost portion of the engine bay. Separate radiators and cooling circuits are mounted just below the level of the frunk, corresponding to the engine and the electric power systems. Even with accessories in place, there’s lots of space under the hood.
For now, Workhorse is testing with a single range-extended mode, so when we did get some seat time with the W-15, we never heard the BMW twin spin up. You’d need to deplete the battery more than we did before it starts.
As we went out to drive the W-15 as an electric truck around the large parking lot of an expo center, Burns expressed concern about the squeaks and rattles as well as the fit and finish of door panels, which are likely to see minor resculpting once the cab-structure design has been completed. The prototype we drove is a patchwork of borrowed items, under carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic skin that the company insists is close to the form in which it will be built—including the Tesla-like, mostly grilleless snout and the push-button tailgate release. Workhorse wants the package to be familiar; it’s a mid-size pickup with a six-foot bed that just happens to be electric. And the company is aiming for top federal and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) safety ratings for it.
After a few minutes in the vehicle, we find that not a lot of the interior is functional yet, either; the infotainment screen is running off Burns’s iPhone, while the hazard button is the only one that works on the dash. The cabin isn’t concept-vehicle fragile, but it’s roughed in.
A Quick If Not Ludicrous Hauler
The W-15 feels perky off the line and, like virtually all electric vehicles, near silent with only a faint whine from the motors and a whir from the cooling system for the power electronics. The company says that zero-to-60-mph times will be less than 6.0 seconds—impressive for a fleet truck. Out in the large parking lot, 30 mph comes quickly from the all-wheel-drive truck and its twin 268-hp motors, each mounted between the frame rails. It’s by no means Tesla Ludicrous Mode fast, but it’s likely quicker to 30 than V-6 versions of the Chevrolet Colorado or the Toyota Tacoma.
The brakes felt just fine, although Burns confessed that the prototype uses next to no regenerative braking, so it was mostly a standard friction system. The hydraulic steering gear felt remarkably sorted out for a prototype, and the W-15, with its hand-built A-arm independent suspension, cornered well at low speed around the parking lot—although during our drive the steering system made a loud pulsating that Burns said was air in the system.
The battery pack, motors, and control hardware are all from BorgWarner, while Workhorse is working on its own control software and interface. As it stands, you shift into drive with a dial that looks and feels a little more Playskool than it should for a work truck; as for modes, Burns is cautious but says that both blended hybrid and charge-saving modes are possible. With some of the settings and controls, Burns says that they don’t want to commit to things such as their own power-window mechanisms and switchgear until he knows the size of contracts.
And that gets back to feasibility. Workhorse, which is traded on NASDAQ, is a small operation with only about 115 employees. Burns is reluctant to talk about how much the W-15 will cost to build and bring to market. He confesses that part of getting it there without a big federal contract would depend on getting clients with orders to help foot some of the up-front tooling costs. As of now, he says, more than 5000 orders have been placed.
For the partnership with Ryder, which has also recently committed to support Nikola fuel-cell semi trucks, Burns promises stronger sales and service than Tesla, which is also working on a pickup. Workhorse aims to establish the model in fleets before it might consider private sales, whereas Tesla seems likely to use its existing retail channels and go in the opposite direction, opting for private sales first.
As for why none of the major automakers have tried an original-design plug-in pickup this century, Burns, who was in the software industry before Workhorse, has a simple answer: “Innovation can’t really come from the incumbents.” The Big 3 have high-margin, high-volume vehicles, he argues, and anything that’s primarily electric risks cutting into sales of those vehicles or at least undermining their image.
Burns might be right, in part—although, with the Tesla truck expected in 2019 and other anticipated green rivals like a Ford F-150 hybrid, the company will face plenty of competition. Time is of the essence, but his company still has a lot to prove between now and when Workhorse hopes to make first deliveries, in the second half of 2018. That projection seems optimistic but doable if all the stars align.
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