No thanks, the three founders of ALTe Powertrain Technologies (www.altept.com) told Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk when Tesla decided to close its Michigan Tech Center. Rather than move to Palo Alto and continue work on luxury electric vehicles, we’ll stay in Michigan and start a new company on the eve of an industry downturn to build an alternative powertrain for light commercial vehicles.
“Looking back, the idea of starting a company should have been scary, but it just felt right,” says ALTe co-founder and chief technology officer Jeff DeFrank. “We knew we could do this. We were determined, and determination kept us going.”
ALTe is well along in developing a range extended electric powertrain able to replace a V-8 internal combustion engine powertrain. Major components of the powertrain include a 20kWh lithium ion battery pack, a four-cylinder engine, electric drive motors, a generator, a proprietary hybrid controller unit and HVAC modules.
The system is expected to provide an initial 30-35 miles of driving in an all-electric mode, and an estimated additional 270 miles in a charge-sustained mode. It should improve fuel economy by somewhere between 80 percent and 200 percent. ALTe’s powertrain will also increase the vehicle’s torque while offering similar cargo capacity, horsepower, and towing capability compared to trucks with the original V8 engine.
ALTe faced significant obstacles in designing a powertrain suitable for light commercial vehicles. One was the need to retrofit a powertrain where space is severely limited. “Out of necessity, we had to walk away from everything Tesla had,” DeFrank recalls. “We had to vet a lot of new technology and find components that were small, and we also had to make sure that the components we selected would be suited to production, not just a prototype. Our secret sauce is the integration.”
Another obstacle, common to start-ups, was gaining suppliers’ attention in a boom era for electric vehicles. ALTe has a long-term supply agreement with A123 Systems for lithium ion battery packs that can be charged from a 110-volt outlet in about eight hours or from a 220-volt outlet in about four hours. It also has an agreement with Manheim, which will retrofit customers’ light trucks and vans with ALTe powertrains. DeFrank says the company has contracts from customers in hand, and retrofitting should begin sometime during the latter half of 2012.