Odyne's Birth Pangs
Dialogue with Roger Slotkin, Chairman and CEO of the heavy plug-in hybrid drive manufacturer.
By Bill Moore
After spending years traveling the country fixing flawed battery management systems in electric and hybrid buses, the two founders of Odyne decided it was time to start their own company. But it's one thing to operate out of the proverbial garage and another to grow into a manufacturing business.
So it seems fitting, according to Roger Slotkin, the Chairman and CEO of Long Island, NY-based Odyne, that the company's name should come from the Greek for the "pangs of childbirth." Now, not being a Greek scholar (I do own a DVD copy of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding", if that counts), I can't vouch for the origins of the word, but I can report that for a little company that seemed to suddenly come out of nowhere (the business actually launched in 2001), it has quickly created a name for itself in the heavy Class 6, 7 and 8 plug-in hybrid vehicle market.
In fact, they pretty much own the niche at the moment, with other manufacturers focusing on more conventional hybrids. And now, as I write, they seem poised to "go international," but that pieces of news will have to wait the official announcement.
In the meantime, there is still an encouraging story to tell about a company that despite its name, seems to making all the right moves to position itself for strong growth in the future. You can listen to the entire 35-minute interview using either of the two MP3 players at the top of the page or by downloading it to your computer for playback on your favorite MP3 player.
IN BRIEF: Synopsis of Interview
Roger Slotkin has known the two founders for years and when he had to have some electrical control systems developed for his solar photovoltaic business, he turned to Odyne, then a small, two-man electronics trouble-shooting business. He was impressed by their work and they, in turn, asked him for advise on how to grow their business. Slotkin had been a professional CEO-for-hire for 20 years and prior to that a corporate turn-around specialist who helped them "put a skin on the company" and got them out of the garage. In 2006, it did a reverse merge and went public. The company now has some 20 employees.
Initially, the company got a major capital infusion for research work it did for EPRI and Long Island Power Authority, as well as other grants, including NYSERTA. By 2005, Slotkin had brought in additional engineers and management, which put Odyne at the right place at the right time as interest in electric-drive began to accelerate. The company is "agnostic" to both battery chemistry and fuel type since its electronic controls are adaptable to most types of heavy vehicle platforms.
Class 6, 7 and 8 vehicles span 20-80,000 pounds in vehicle weight, which represents about 100,000 new vehicles annually, and about 1 million in the entire fleet. By contrast, city transit buses only constitute about 2-4,000 new vehicles a year; and that market is dominated by Orion and GM. The Class 6, 7 and 8 market understands the concept of "up-fitting" where chassis and engines and bodies are ordered from different manufacturers, which lends itself to the introduction of electric drive hybridization. A 30-50% market share of that segment of the business alone translates into a couple billion dollars in annual sales. Equally important, the vehicles in this category often best fit the form and function of a plug-in, series hybrid drive: high gross weight, poor fuel economy and lots of stopping and starting. These include garbage trucks, sorting trucks, bucket trucks, transit buses, school buses.
Odyne's first real project as a company was the EPRI/LIPA 40-foot (12 m) transit bus with a gross weight of 35,000 pounds (15,875 kg). It was equipped with a small 2.5L diesel engine and plug-in hybrid powertrain as opposed to the normal 10-12L diesel-only engine. With grid-charged capability, it had nearly 40 miles of all-electric driving range. The bus has "stealth mode" in that all its auxiliary pumps are driven electrically. After the bus, which was only intended as a research project, was placed into revenue service, Odyne realized it needed to upgrade the diesel gen-set to a larger engine, but it's still under 4 liters. That bus will soon be placed back into revenue service on Long Island.
Slotkins vision is to eventually become a manufacturer of plug-in hybrid drive systems to the bus and truck industries. He sees the company as being both strong in the mechanical integration and software control aspects of the business.
The company's next projects turned out to be garbage trucks: one is a natural-gas fueled diesel, plug-in hybrid refuge truck that it is developing for the city of Fresno, California. The other is a retired New York City garbage truck that has been restored, cleaned up and retrofitted to a diesel, plug-in hybrid.
While the other projects have been largely one-off, the company has developed a series, diesel, plug-in hybrid powertrain for a para-transit bus for the town of North Hampton, LI. This drive system eventually will be offered as an option by the manufacturer, Champion Bus of Michigan. According to the fleet manager operating the first vehicle, it is getting nearly twice the fuel efficiency of the standard Duramax diesel engine.
There are about a quarter million garbage trucks in America that get between 2-4 miles per gallon with higher mileage on more rural routes and lower in urban settings. One California fleet averages about 30 miles a day and over 100 stops, which offers the worst operating regime for conventional engines in terms of emissions and fuel efficiency. In Odyne's case, while the vehicle is driven electrically, because the trash compactor is hydraulically operated, the vehicles will not operate in electric-only mode. However, there is enough stored electrical energy in the Enersys battery packs to drive the vehicles between 10-40 miles.
Odyne currently prefers to utilize lead-acid batteries because of predictability of delivery and their low price. Slotkin noted that lithium chemistry cells are priced 8-10 times that of Enersys glass-mat batteries. He thinks the crossover threshold between whether to use lead or lithium is when the latter is only about 4 times the price of the former.
Typically, the battery packs are mounted along the center rails of the vehicle chassis and can be configured for 20,40 or 60 kWhs. All of the e-drive components from the motor to the aluminum battery cases are liquid cooled. The batteries, which are mounted on pallets, can be removed in about 20-minutes.
Slotkin credits Bob Graham, then EPRI's plug-in vehicle champion, with stimulating interest in the concept. Odyne did their own number crunching when diesel fuel prices hit $2.50 a gallon on Long Island and discovered that an electric mile -- in a region with some of the highest utility rates in America -- was one-fifth that of a diesel mile making it an "economic no-brainer." Slotkin also points out that every electrically-powered mile put on a truck is one less mile fueled by imported oil. In addition, despite the inefficiencies of the power grid, he contends it is still twice as efficient as an internal combustion engine. Overall, electric-powered vehicles are more efficient, cleaner, more secure and cheaper to operate.
Although in the past the additional costs associated with commercial hybrid and electric vehicles has been subsidized by public funds, Odyne believes that the industry can and must thrive without them. They calculate that even with orders in the a few hundreds annually, and calculating in the cost-savings from reduced maintenance and some modest clean-air credits, that plug-in hybrid commercial vehicles will pay for themselves over a 7 year operational life span and do so without supplemental public funding. Private fleets also qualify for up to $35,000 in federal tax credits per vehicle.
Odyne is providing the battery packaging and management systems for EAE's Nissan Tsuru electric car conversion program, as well as the strong likelihood of providing systems for a similar, but ultimately far larger conversion of thousands of aging diesel-powered Ruta buses in Mexico City. Cities in Columbia and Peru, following Mexico City's example, are also talking with Odyne.
While Slotkin wasn't willing to go into details about the steady erosion of the company's shares since doing its reverse merger when shares were around $3 and now are around 25 cents, he did explain that this is one of the negative aspects of doing this type of merger, which uses the existing stock listing of a previous company that is now just a shell as a way to go public and raise investor funds. The shell company had some 6 million shares outstanding and investors there have been steadily selling out and until that group is gone, there isn't much he can do about the sliding value other than to continue to work hard and make the company successful.
His vision for the company within the next five years is for Odyne to be a major player in the development and manufacture of plug-in hybrid powertrains for the truck and bus industries, both new and retrofit. He sees a similar role in the sale of battery management systems, which also includes the ability to both import and export power to and from the vehicle, especially in times of a emergency to keep vital infrastructure running. He hopes to see a robust, well-capitalized company that attracts investors, both private and institutional with the same long-term vision.
Be sure to listen to the entire 35-minute conversation using the MP3 players above or by downloading the file to your computer for playback on your favorite MP3 device. The download url is: http://www.evworld.com/evworld_audio/roger_slotkin.mp3