Phoenix Electric Truck: Fantasy No More
By Bill Moore
Brian Bliss handed me the keys to the all-white Phoenix Motorcars sports utility truck (SUT) and slipped into the passenger seat, while I slide behind the wheel. We were parked behind the Marriott Hotel along with a handful of other alternative vehicles on hand for ride and drive demonstrations during the Alternative Fuel Vehicles conference + export organized by AFVi.
I had been looking forward to this opportunity for weeks after missing the chance during the company's gala debut at the Peterson Automotive Museum in Los Angeles when a contactor welded shut. It turned out, according the Bliss, the company sales manager, to be a software problem, but on that particular night when I went to drive the vehicle, it was out of commission, though as you'll see from the Stefano Paris' 22-minute video of the event, quite a few people including Who Killed the Electric Car director Chris Paine got to drive it. However, I did get the change to take the eBox Paris had driven to the event out for a late evening romp around the neighborhoods south of Wilshire Blvd.
My first impression of the vehicle is that Phoenix made a good decision partnering with Boshart Engineering and collaborating with them on an SUT-based electric vehicle instead of yet another sexy, but less practical two-seat sports car. Utilizing an attractive, 5-passenger, Korean-built SUT chassis immediately enabled them to market to fleets in California who can much more easily justify a truck to taxpayers than a sports car, clean and efficient though it might be. The short cargo box is completely open for hauling equipment, tools, supplies. Cargo capacity is rated at 1000 pounds, according to company president Dan Elliott. The lithium-ion batteries are nested under the passenger cabin in an enclosure that does protrude several inches below the frame, so you don't want to jump curbs or high center it; it will be a very costly short-cut.
Just how costly? Bliss was candid in telling me right up front before we ever left the hotel parking lot that the first ten custom-built battery packs from Altairnano were expensive. The initial order of ten 35kWh packs cost $750,000, so each one cost $75,000 or $2,142 per kilowatt hour of capacity, a long way from the DOE goal of $250/kWh. He was confident that those costs would come down over time.
The next revelation was the truck's delightful regenerative braking. Like the AC Propulsion eBox, it is powerful and effective. Let off the accelerator and the vehicle immediately begins to slow as the generator converts kinetic energy back to electric power stored in the Altairnano lithium titanate batteries, about which so much has been speculated on the Internet and here on EV World.
As Chris Paine mentions in the Paris video, the vehicle is extraordinarily quiet, a tribute to the UQM electric drive system, the fourth major contributor to the Phoenix program. Automotive engineers have done much to improve the ride of today's trucks, especially their SUVs, to make them more car-like, but for all their efforts, they still don't come close to the joyous, unparalleled silence of an EV. It would have been an interesting comparison to drive the company's gasoline version and their EV model in tandem drive tests. I tried to get out to their Ontario facility, but to no avail; everyone of any import was at the AFVi event that week.
Bliss also noted that Energy CS -- the company that largely started the plug-in hybrid conversion movement -- is developing a new EV-centric instrument cluster to replace the current gasoline model in the development prototypes.
Phoenix also just announced this week that it and UQM, based in Colorado, are going to develop their own plug-in hybrid vehicle. Elliott confirmed for me by telephone last night that it will be, as I suspected, a series/serial configuration in which a gasoline generator recharges the battery pack once it depletes and provides sufficient power to drive the truck down the road. While Elliott wouldn't say much more about the program, he did note that it will be an 18-month project but that at the moment there are no plans to go into production. Certainly, there is plenty of room under the hood of the SUT to reinstall a small IC engine.
Other firms actively working on this approach are Ford, General Motors and SVE in France.
Elliott also pointed out that the SUT has now passed federal front-end crash tests, which will ensure it legally can be operated on highways, which is a monumental step of historic proportions in and of itself. Up to this point, only the major OEM's have developed Full Performance Battery Electric Vehicles (FPBEVs) that were DOT certified.
My test drive was brief -- a mile or so around the Anaheim Convention Center complex -- but encouraging. The vehicle obviously works and has adequate performance given its size and weight with zero-to-sixty somewhere about 10 seconds. It will make an excellent fleet vehicle, as well as family cruiser, though you won't be towing a trailer or boat behind it, which is often the rationale buyers use to justify this class of truck.
Still, huge questions remain. How well will the batteries perform? How long will they last? Can the costs be brought down, dramatically brought down? Can Phoenix make a profit banking on the California Air Resources Board's ZEV credits program? It's clearly a strategy that would appear to be short-term.
But, we have to start somewhere. Someone has to take the point position and Phoenix has volunteered.; and for that alone they have to be commended.
We'll continue to monitor development and hopefully be able to take the vehicle out for longer test drives. Now, I need to make sure we add the Phoenix to our EV Guide, since it's no longer fantasy.
Thanks to Stefano Paris for use of his video. For even more information on the Phoenix SUT and better quality video, visit Stefanoparis.com.
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