Plug-in Hybrid Conversions: A Year to Get Your Investment Back

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Aug 14, 2014

It looks like an ordinary Ford E-150 van, the kind used by every hippie painter/handyman in America. But most of those vans get a miserable eight to 12 mpg; this one snags 18 mpg on a good day. It’s secret is an aftermarket plug-in hybrid conversion kit, slapped in place by a team at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey.

A hybrid conversion kit gets this New Jersey-based college van up to 18 mpg. (FDU photo)Sai Sankar, a senior research engineer at FDU, said it would be possible to put his kit into production for $4,000 to $6,000 per vehicle, which is what surveys show people are willing to pay. In fact, the team sought venture capital with just that in mind, but “it was the middle of the great recession and there were few funders available at that time.”

Sankar estimates it would take only a little more than a year to recoup the investment if the vehicle is on the road a lot of the time, which is usually the case with commercials. “They put on so many more miles than regular passenger cars,” he said. That’s the kind of number fleet managers want to see.

The control box in the cabin isn’t going to win any design prizes—it looks like an escapee from a 1970s science fair. “That’s a fair criticism,” Sankar said. “It needs to look decent, but to put it mildly this was a project put together with a very low budget. I’m my own worst critic about how it looks.”

That control box could be prettier, but I'm sure it's functional. (FDU photo)The system consists of a 7.5 kilowatt-hour lead-acid battery pack (mounted under the vehicle) a charging system (behind the rear seat) and an electric motor (between the driver and passenger seat). The van doesn’t drive on electric power alone; instead, the motor acts as a booster (as in Honda’s hybrids) to ease fuel use on accelerating from low speeds. The whole shebang weighs just over 700 pounds.

As it happens, I’ve been driving a plug-in hybrid, a $45,000 (before federal tax credits) Ford Fusion Energi (there’s also an Energi version of the C-Max). It's a big, comfortable sedan with 100 MPGe (fuel economy equivalent) and a $950 annual gas bill, making it one of the best cars for the environment the feds have tested. Plug-in hybrids have been exploding on the market lately, pushed by zealous advocates like Felix Kramer of Today you can buy a plug-in hybrid from Ford, Toyota, Chevrolet, Cadillac, BMW, even Porsche. Audi is soon to introduce the A3 Sportback e-tron.

My Ford Fusion Energi charging on free electrons at the local library. (Jim Motavalli photo)I loved that I could plug my Ford in for free at the local library and drive most of the time on pure electric power. Plug-in hybrids are firmly established in the marketplace now. But Kramer points out that Ford's F-150 trucks and E-150 vans are the most popular commercial vehicles around, and it's a missed opportunity not to electrify them. With 253 million vehicles on American roads (and more than a billion in the world) we really should think about converting the existing fleet. He says now:

Several companies have tried conversions, whose better fuel economy over time could pay off the increased cost, but they didn't get eligibility for the $7,500 tax credit that would have made them more attractive to buyers. And venture capitalists have been more interested in new cars than conversions. There are so many of these trucks and vans out there that it's a missed opportunity not to electrify them. We are still hoping a company will be able to partner with an automaker to "fix" sturdy gas-guzzlers that will be on the road for a decade or more. And it would be great if Ford introduced plug-in hybrid delivery vans for small businesses.

So if we can improve the existing truck fleet for a price that makes sense for fleet owners, let’s do it. But some wise investors have to step forward to make it happen. Here's a closer look at the FDU van on video:

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