Emerald Automotive: What Does its Plug-In Hybrid Delivery Van Have That Bright's Didn't?

By · November 19, 2012

Emerald t-001

Emerald t-001: Will delivery fleets flock to it? (Emerald photo)

It’s a really good looking plug-in hybrid delivery van, targeted at fleet customers such as Coca-Cola, FedEx, UPS, AT&T and Frito-Lay. It’s being built in the Midwest, but with a lot of international support. If you think I’m talking about the ill-fated and Indiana-based Bright Automotive, which went belly-up after failing to win a federal Department of Energy loan, you get a gold star, but you’re wrong.

From Lotus to St. Louis

The company is Emerald Automotive, and it’s staffed by no less than five ex-Lotus Engineering employees. Yes, it’s a group of Brits relocated to America, originally with the idea of grabbing a loan from that $25 billon Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing (ATVM) fund. Emerald withdrew that request after the process threatened to drag out into 2013, but it can always re-apply. In fact, in the wake of the election the Solyndra fear factor is probably lifted and some of that government money is likely to begin flowing again soon.

So why will Emerald succeed where Bright (which had initial backing from Alcoa, Google, Johnson Controls and others) failed? “They relied on getting the DOE loan for far too long, and their break-evens were too high,” said Emerald CEO Andy Tempest. “It’s not realistic to expect to sell 50,000 vehicles in a brand-new market.”

The Emerald from the back

The Emerald is a striking design, but is there a business case? (Emerald photo)

Emerald does have a case to make, even without federal funding. I narrowly missed meeting Emerald while in St. Louis to visit with Enterprise Rent-a-Car. Enterprise—which has a huge truck rental business—is talking to and advising Emerald, so that’s how I heard about the company.

Long Electric Range

I was immediately struck by the really cutting-edge styling of the mid-sized t-001, which can travel 66 miles on its 25-kilowatt-hour battery pack, and a total of 463 miles with the internal-combustion range extender (diesel for Europe) running. The 75-kilowatt electric motor drives the rear axle, powering the vehicle to approximately 80 mph Here's a look at the British version on video:

Tempest himself comes out of European design/engineering consultancies. Despite the red state location (which has the advantage of many experienced ex-Big Three workers in the wake of some plant closings), Emerald is at least initially focused on the European market. “We originated from Europe, and are talking to the Royal Mail, as well as companies such as British Telecom, DHL, Deutsche Post and more.

“These guys really want a green van, because of economics and payback when gasoline is $10 a gallon,” Tempest said. There’s a 17-month payback in Europe, versus 48 months in the U.S. But that said, the finances are still better in the U.S. for our van than for its battery electric equivalent. By using a plug-in hybrid format without a huge battery pack, we were able to take out 900 pounds of weight.” The van has a lightweight aluminum structure and thermal plastic composite body panels, again with parallels to Bright.

Due in 2015

Emerald won’t have the t-001 in production until 2015, when it will be offered in both the U.S. and Europe. The plan is to produce 5,000 the first year, then go to 10,000. Tempest said his team, with many coming from Lotus (also Tesla and Fisker), is experienced in making profitable low-volume cars for major manufacturers. First, they have to build the St. Louis factory, which is estimated to cost $160 million. “We don’t want to be in some old shed,” Tempest said.

There’s no immediate plan to build a passenger van, though Emerald could do that easily enough. Wouldn’t it be a cool vehicle for your local van pool?

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