There’s no shortage of green consumer vehicles on the road — just try and count how many Priuses you see on the way to work. But despite all their cost-saving appeal, green business-fleet vehicles are a much less common sight.

Part of that has to do with hybrid and other alternative-fuel vehicles’ massive acquisition costs, plus some lingering doubts about performance — they’ve made fleet managers hesitant to jump into the green movement. But to at least one green commercial vehicle manufacturer, it’s time to put those doubts to rest.

“The only thing standing in the way of this technology dominating the market is education, time and demonstration,” says David West, CMO for VIA Motors, a Utah-based company that converts internal-combustion engines into gas/electric hybrids.

“The inherent advantages of the technology are there,” West says. “The problem is that fleet owners only look at the purchase price of the vehicle, not the combined purchase and fuel ownership price. It just means the customer needs to do a little bit of math.”

Powertrain conversions for trucks, vans, SUVs

VIA takes trucks, vans, and SUVs and “electrifies” them by essentially ripping them open and replacing the powertrain system with its proprietary “eREV” technology, converting the vehicle into an electric/gas-powered hybrid. The company says its vans can go the first 40 miles on a single lithium-ion battery charge — beyond that range, the gas engine kicks in, giving you a potential 400-mile range (and recharging the battery). The company just electrified two trucks for PG&E as part of a pilot program, and has plans to work with Verizon on greening its fleet as well.

However, it’s one thing for companies as big as AT&T and PG&E to dip their toes in to the alternative-fuel marketplace — they have huge budgets that can handle a few really expensive vans. How expensive? VIA’s electrified trucks or vans run around $79,000. The MSRP on a gas-powered GM Express 2500 (the same van they’re converting to electric for Verizon) is closer to $30,000.

But according to West, fleet managers have focused too narrowly on the up-front costs, and not enough on back-end savings. VIA’s website, in fact, has a nifty Life Cycle Savings Calculator where users can input several metrics like miles driven and price of gas, and get the estimated total eight-year savings offered by their vans or trucks. Each of PG&E’s trucks, for example, is expected to save about $2,700 annually on fuel costs.

Short-term costs vs. long-term savings

“A lot of people are saying, ‘I’ll buy these vehicles when they get to be cheaper, when they get to be priced like my gas truck,’” says West. “That’s not going to happen. An iPhone is never going to be cheaper than Nokia. People will adopt them when they become available, and we’re at that threshold right now. It’s solely a marketing and education problem now, not an engineering problem.”

VIA also outfits its vehicles with other field service-friendly features, like an on-board 15-kilowatt generator that techs can plug electric tools into, plus an optional iPad that can be mounted into the cab. The iPad can run the hybrid display, power export, and keep track of fuel economy. For technicians already using iPads for scheduling, routing, inventory tracking, etc., this seems pretty convenient.

West says he understands that small businesses have been somewhat reluctant to take on this type of investment. But, he says, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth it.

“It’s smart for a small fleet to get started on this,” he says. “Some will wait to see what the big guys will do because it’s a new product and new technology, but if they wait too long they’re losing money. It’s just a matter of time, and these things will explode.”

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