I was impressed pulling into the lot at Lightning eMotors. A hundred or more white vans from Ford and GM were arrayed in rows, waiting for their turn to be transformed into battery electric vehicles (BEVs). Lightning eMotors, covered by CleanTechnica in 2021 here, here, and here, specializes in creating powertrains and electric conversions for large vans, shuttles, buses, and delivery vehicles.
Located in Loveland, Colorado, the site was once a Hewlett-Packard (HP) campus that sits atop a small hill overlooking the Rocky Mountains. I’m particularly interested in this place, not only for the company’s mission to move the world towards an electrified, carbon-free future, but also because I used to work in that building. And recently I had the chance to return to the transformed site, on tour with a group of electrical engineers.
Back in the HP days, the site fostered both engineering and manufacturing excellence, but thanks to larger economic forces and shifting priorities, the company eventually left the Loveland site. Employees (such as I) were moved into a smaller building next door, where we sadly watched the larger campus languish in near abandonment for almost a decade. Fast-forward to now and you can’t help but be encouraged to see Lightning eMotors blossoming, bringing that same spirit of innovation back to the historic site. (Coincidentally, I also once worked from time to time at the site that Tesla now calls its engineering headquarters in Palo Alto, CA, also a former HP building.)
On our group’s tour, we started at Lightning’s first vehicle, a futuristic-looking hybrid car that used compressed nitrogen for regenerative braking, built during their humble beginnings in 2008. With over 250 employees, they now focus on building pure electric drivetrains and performing conversions for Class 3 cargo and passenger vans, ambulances, Class 4 and 5 cargo vans and shuttle buses, Class 4 Type A school buses, Class 6 work trucks, Class 7 city buses, and motor coaches. In almost all cases, the conversion is performed on new vehicles from the OEM factories, which means that these vehicles are already EVs when they are first registered for road use.
These vehicles are larger than the Class 2 vans that Ford (eTransit) and GM (BrightDrop) currently produce, and fill an important niche in fleet electrification. Some of these vehicles will run all day, contributing positively both to our planet’s carbon footprint as well as reducing noise and air pollution, so electrification makes a big difference in each.
As we walked, we saw vehicles at various stages of the conversion processes. Most models begin as brand new vehicles, complete with an internal combustion engine (ICE), which is first removed and then replaced by an electric powertrain. For now, the ICE powertrains are sold to recoup costs, but eventually, they’ll have sufficient volume to buy new chassis without the ICE components. Once the drivetrain is replaced, the body is modified according to the customer’s purpose, turning it into a van, shuttle, or just about anything else. They can also refit used vehicles, such as school buses, with new electric drivetrains.
Besides reducing greenhouse gas emissions, electrification can lead to better reliability, as Lightning’s Dan Bennett explained:
“Lightning eMotors has invested heavily in manufacturing and quality systems with the aim of producing vehicles which are reliable from day one. In fact, one of the company’s key performance metrics is the overall uptime rate for their customer base. At 97% uptime (for all of their vehicles except the earliest prototypes), this metric is above diesel fleets, which typically run at around 90% availability.”
But the company does much more than EV manufacturing. To ensure successful fleet operations, it has expanded its portfolio to include logistics, charging stations, charging as a service, mobile charging, telematics, as well as guidance for navigating government incentives, all to make sure customers are operating at peak efficiency. It’s a one-stop shop. From the company’s website:
“The Lightning team works with forward-thinking fleets to provide the right electric powertrain on the right chassis in the right drive cycle. Lightning’s products improve a fleet’s operating costs and safety and make sure they are driving the cleanest and most advanced technology available.”
An example of Lightning’s investment in making EV selection easier for fleets is its online simulation tool at fleet.lightningemotors.com, which asks the user for operational information such as passenger count or payload requirements, terrain type, and duty schedule; and then provides a list of vehicles that would work for that fleet, along with estimated cost savings compared to the ICE equivalent vehicle. “These simulations are based on real-world telematics data,” says Dan Bennett, “so they can be trusted.”
Over the past few years, they’ve continued to grow. In the third quarter of 2022, Lightning eMotors produced 104 vehicles and powertrains, a new record, doubling the amount from Q3 2021. As of this writing, customers have driven over 4 million pure electric miles, mitigating 7 million lb of CO2 (on the road). And the future looks bright thanks to continued demand and new government incentives. From the company’s 2022 earnings report:
“In addition to the ongoing Federal Transportation Administration funding for low and zero emission public transportation at $1 billion per year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently doubled the funding for electric school buses from $500 million to $1 billion per year. Starting in 2023, the new Inflation Reduction Act provides a tax credit of $40,000 for electric commercial vehicles over 14,000 pounds, a funding that can be stacked on top of the other Federal and State funding sources. Lightning is one of only a few OEMs that likely qualify for all of these subsidies today.”
Our tour group took all these sites and stats in with a sort of reckless curiosity. We of course asked all the typical EV questions about range, charging, brake regen, battery lifetime, etc. But a group of (mostly retired) engineers, dropped suddenly into a hub of new technology, will want to know much more — they will want to know everything. Accordingly, we exhausted our guides with questions on everything from wiring to hiring. We asked about software, documentation, testing, supply chains, workplace safety, throughput, electromagnetic interference, first-responder safety, heating/cooling, gear boxes, controllers, efficiency, and so much more.
It’s easy to underestimate all the proficiencies needed to get a new auto company off the ground. But I was impressed by how adeptly our guides answered our questions, showing that they’d given thought to every issue, and in the process, illustrated their commitment to innovation in both engineering and manufacturing. It was encouraging to see this important effort underway, and right next door to where I now work. And who knows, maybe I should like to work in that building again someday.
By David Gines. Dave is an electrical engineer working at Keysight Technologies, specializing in algorithms for data analysis.
He loves science, enjoys following the transition to clean energy through CleanTechnica, and likes to stay active in the beautiful outdoors of northern Colorado where he currently lives.
Thank you and a hat tip to David!
All images are courtesy of Lightning eMotors (and used with their permission).
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