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Via Motors targets annual sales of 50,000 plug-in hybrid trucks

An engineer inspects the space where a 350-volt battery will be placed between the gas engine, right, and a new electric motor, left, for conversion into electric power at VIA Motors in Orem, Utah. Photo credit: BLOOMBERG

DETROIT -- VIA Motors Inc. a closely held assembler of plug-in hybrid pickups, expects to sell 50,000 vehicles per year by 2018, Chairman Bob Lutz said in an interview.

VIA's plug-in pickups and delivery vans, like the Chevrolet Volt, have a gasoline-powered generator that can extend driving range by providing electricity to the battery pack and drivetrain.

The plug-in trucks reduce fuel costs and provide electricity at remote locations for campers, catering companies, utilities and the military, said Lutz, who helped develop the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid as vice chairman of General Motors Co.

The 82-year-old former Marine has also worked at Ford Motor Co. and BMW AG and was vice chairman of Chrysler Corp. under Lee Iacocca and Bob Eaton.

"We're not trying to be Tesla" Motors Inc., Lutz said, referring to billionaire Elon Musk's maker of high-end electric cars that aims to grow from 50,000 sales next year to 500,000 by 2020. "But these vehicles get over 100 miles per gallon and have lots of other advantages. They basically act like mobile generators."

VIA buys Chevrolet Silverado pickups from GM and installs two electric motors and a lithium ion battery pack that, when fully charged, can propel the vehicles for 40 miles (64 kilometers).

The 4.3-liter V-6 gasoline engine powers a generator that, in turn, recharges the batteries. The trucks can travel as far as 400 miles on a full charge and full tank of gas.

Useful range

For utilities, 40 miles of electric range is enough for a truck to reach many job sites and return for overnight charging. At $1.80 per gallon for gasoline, the utilities can cut monthly fuel costs by about $300 with electric-only driving, Lutz said.

This amount helps offset the monthly lease payment for the truck, and it will grow if gasoline prices start to rise, he said. Customers such as utilities that need mobile power won't have to haul a generator on a trailer, Lutz said, because VIA pickups have an array of 120- and 240-volt electrical outlets.

The Orem, Utah-based company also offers an optional solar panel, stretched across the top of the pickup bed, for recharging the batteries. VIA will start selling the pickups to fleet customers in February and to individuals by the end of the year, Lutz said. FedEx Corp., PG&E Corp., Duke Energy Corp. and Verizon Communications Inc. have already placed orders, Lutz said at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Sun Country Highway has agreed to buy 1,000 pickups and delivery vans from VIA and will distribute them across Canada, said founder Kent Rathwell. Sun Country, based in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, has already built a nationwide network of electric-car recharging stations that includes most of the Best Western International Inc. hotels in Canada.

"This is about developing transportation that's socially, economically and environmentally sustainable," Rathwell said. Crew-cab versions of the VIA pickups, with seating for up to six, cost about $65,000, Lutz said. For 2015, he said, the company would be happy selling as many as 12,000 vehicles.

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