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Motiv expands electric chassis footprint

Reorders from current customers suggest battery-electric breakout, CEO says

Motiv Power Systems says reorders by current customers suggest a breakout is coming for medium-duty electric vehicles. (Photo: Motiv)

Motiv Power Systems Inc., which counts more than 1 million miles of travel on its battery-electric truck and bus chassis, sees a coming breakout for zero-emission commercial vehicles.

“Fleets can see the technology’s ready. And so they want to get in early enough to be influencing the technology and make sure it works in their operations, as opposed to trying to scramble on the back end,” Motiv CEO Matt O’Leary told FreightWaves.

A former Ford Motor Co. (NYSE: F) product development executive, O’Leary said the best indication that battery-powered electric trucks are ready for prime time is new orders from Motiv customers. 

AmeriPride Services, a unit of Aramark (NYSE: ARMK) Uniform Services, started with 10 Motiv-equipped vehicles, ordered 21 more and has another pending order. Bimbo Bakeries USA, the nation’s largest bakery company, started with five electric trucks and ordered 20 more. Motiv expects to announce a “very large” order from Bimbo in the next month.

“They all talk to each other and when they see others being successful in reordering, that’s the strongest vote of confidence you can get from the customers,” O’Leary said.

COVID setbacks

Like many companies, Motiv experienced setbacks during the shelter-in-place orders prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic. A federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan of “less than $2 million” helped Motiv keep its employees.

COVID slowed progress on opening an engineering center in the Detroit area to complement engineering operations in Foster City, California. A new vice president of manufacturing and applications engineering director are still looking for a physical site in Michigan, where Motiv works extensively with Ford. Motiv is in discussions with other manufacturers, O’Leary said.

“Engineering in two different locations requires meeting cadences, communication protocols, even IT, to make that all work seamlessly,” O’Leary said. “Being in shelter-in-place has kind of taught us how to make that work because we’ve been working remote since mid-March and staying on track with our engineering.”

A planned battery technology upgrade minimized some COVID-related delays. Motiv is switching from six sodium-nickel batteries, each with its own power controller, to three lithium-ion batteries like those used in the BMW i3 electric compact sedan, and a single controller. 

Motiv Power Systems is switching from six sodium-nickel batteries, each with its own power controller, to three lithium-ion batteries like those used in the BMW i3 electric compact sedan, and a single controller.  (Illustration: Motiv)

“Thankfully for us, we had pushed a lot of our production to the back end of this year,” O’Leary said.  

As uncertainty lingers over a second wave of the coronavirus, Motiv is now eating into production time.

“We are starting back up slowly and we’ve been finding [delays] trying to get parts and even trying to get chassis,” O’Leary said. 

Steady growth

Motiv, founded in 2009 by current Chief Technology Officer Jim Castelaz, showed its first chassis, an electrified Ford F-59 chassis, in 2012. An all-electric Type A school bus on a Ford F-450 chassis debuted a year later. A strategic partnership with Winnebago Industries Inc. (NYSE: WGO) in 2018 led to part of a $60 million investment in September 2019.

Motiv’s total vehicle count in the past decade is around 100. 

On Tuesday, the company announced the deployment of nine electric box trucks with Community Resource Project (CRP) in Sacramento, California. The trucks will be used to provide home energy audits, weatherization, and heating and air conditioning services to low-income residents.

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) is pushing for electric trucks, which emit no tailpipe pollution, to replace heavy-duty diesel-powered trucks on California highways. 

A focus is on frequently traveled routes into and out of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, where CARB says pollution from idling trucks contributes to health problems in  disadvantaged communities.

“We already do a lot in Southern California,” O’Leary said. “If you look at the AmeriPride fleet, those are all deployed in disadvantaged communities.

“Even though our mission is freeing fleets from fossil fuel, we’re all part of making this a better world. And so this is a way to help in that regard, said O’Leary, who estimates that 75% of Motiv-equipped vehicles operate in areas with the worst air pollution.

Motiv has a partnership with Collins Bus Corp., a unit of REV Group Inc. (NYSE: REVG), the nation’s largest maker of Type A buses, which O’Leary said is making electric-powered buses a core part of its business.

“This is another opportunity to go in the more disadvantaged neighborhoods,” he said.

Winnebago plans

Motiv provided the electrified chassis for some unique Winnebago projects, including a mobile surgical equipment sterilization lab at UCLA and a mobile preschool for children in Colorado. O’Leary is careful to avoid revealing what might follow with its largest investor.

“We do have some more projects planned with Winnebago. We’re not ready to talk about it yet, but this should be coming out in the next six months.”

Could that be electrifying recreational vehicles for which the company is best known?

“We’re probably more bullish on it than they are,” O’Leary said. “I think as the technology costs come down and the performance goes up, you’ll be able to get some of the range that the people are looking for. 

“I think it’s going to happen. And I think [electrification is] going to be a killer app for whoever’s first. We’re hoping it’s Winnebago.”

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Alan Adler

Alan Adler is an award-winning journalist who worked for The Associated Press and the Detroit Free Press. He also spent two decades in domestic and international media relations and executive communications with General Motors.