While the electric passenger car market has grown dramatically over the last few years, as exemplified by manufacturers such as Tesla, the market for commercial electric vehicles is still relatively young, especially in North America. Even among legacy OEMs, almost no one can yet boast of deploying more than a few units at this time, and these are often pilot deployments while fleets kick the electric tires, so to speak. And yet, emerging legislation in California and elsewhere is mandating the dramatic expansion of the commercial EV market.
Lightning eMotors is one of the few vendors to have vehicles in regular and successful operation with commercial, government and non-profit fleets, in numbers which lead U.S. sales to date. In this article, we will look at aspects of Lightning’s business model and products which have led to this leadership position.
Many commercial EV manufacturers are going down the route of developing all-new,“ground-up” vehicles, which include the chassis, bodywork, cockpit, headlights and everything else. Developing new vehicles from scratch may be glamorous, but the burden of design, development, tooling, safety testing, regulatory certification, on-road qualification, production and after-sales service is huge.
Lightning eMotors sidesteps this burdensome approach by selecting tried-and-trusted platforms from legacy OEMs such as Ford and GM, allowing us to focus on engineering and producing the most reliable and efficient electric power trains available today. We benefit from the fact that the OEMs have already amortized the development and tooling costs and are delivering these chassis in volume; and our customers therefore benefit from lower costs, road-proven chassis and bodies, strong parts and service ecosystems, and a wide choice of after-market up fits such as lift gates, ADA lifts, cargo shelving and more.
That said, Lightning is NOT a “retrofit” company. While we do occasionally replace gasoline or diesel power trains with electric ones in vehicles that have seen on-road duty (a service we call “repowering”), the bulk of our business is in delivering new vehicles, which are regulatorily compliant EVs at the time of first registration, fully commissioned, and up fitted in the final configuration needed by the customer.
Of course, one key benefit for everyone from this model is that Lightning’s electric vehicles have been available and deployed for over two years already. There’s no waiting for factory build-outs, a styling team to finish tweaking their clay model, or the suspension to get tuned on a test track.
There are two main activities involved in producing Lightning’s purpose-built electric vehicles:
1. Manufacturing electric power train “kits”
2. Installing the kits into vehicles to produce road-ready EVs
Both of these activities take place at Lightning’s factory in Loveland, Colorado. One half of our large manufacturing building is taken up with metal fabrication, wireharness production, power train assembly and pre-commissioning, and parts inventory management. Having these functions in-house allows us to move swiftly to meet orders, while keeping a close eye on quality. As our business scales to larger vehicle volumes and additional OEM platforms, the balance of in-house to outsourced operations will regularly be optimized for costs, lead times and quality.
Vehicle assembly, which takes place in the other half of the main building, is also streamlined for maximum throughput, with sequences of “stations” making up the production line. Once again, keeping this activity in-house allows us to monitor and improve quality, andto facilitate rapid collaboration between departments.
As with any emerging technology market, especially where Asian economies are significant players, quality can be a mixed bag. We have seen some of our competitors’ offerings (as have some of our current customers!), and in almost all cases we compare favorably in quality. We select the best off-the-shelf, road-tested components available, and we implement sophisticated features such as active thermal management for the battery packs. Why is quality important? It’s because we recognize that fleets regard uptime as key; uptime comes from reliability, and reliability comes from quality.
We always receive enthusiastic feedback from drivers, who love the quiet ride, strong torque and familiarity of our vehicles. There is almost nothing to learn: everything behaves as expected, with the possible exception of regenerative braking, which improves efficiency by turning the electric motor into a generator when the driver takes his or her foot off the pedal. This “one pedal driving” can truly reduce driver fatigue.
We have implemented low-speed creep, which makes maneuvering easy; and hill-hold, which means you won’t roll backwards into the vehicle behind you at a stop light. The instrument cluster is clear and informative, giving real-time feedback on efficiency. Our mobile app allows the driver to monitor charging progress while enjoying a coffee at Starbucks.
A key feature of every Lightning vehicle is Lightning Analytics, which allows fleets to see the state of all their EVs in real time. Each vehicle has a 4G modem which uploadsoperational parameters to Lightning’s servers, including the state of charge and the GPS location. Analytics is also a predictive maintenance tool. By monitoring all temperatures, voltages, pressures, etc., Lightning’s customer service team will be immediately alerted if a vehicle develops a fault condition. This can be relayed to the fleet operators who can bring it in for repair.
One of the main hurdles to fleet adoption of commercial EVs is charging infrastructure. Fleet managers often do not have clear plans for charging, or a clear idea of how to implement enough charging capacity to reliably support operations. Lightning has addressed this issue by offering charging stations and charging management software directly on its price list. In addition, Lightning can provide charging as a service (CaaS), where Lightning can oversee everything from planning and permitting to utility liaison and construction project management, as well as after sales support for charging stations.
As component and manufacturing costs fall, commercial EVs will be a key part of the urban scene. Lightning eMotors addresses the medium- and heavy-duty EV markets with a business model that’s already delivering vehicles, while being scalable to meet future demand.