DETROIT -- Five years ago, Bob Lutz stood in front of a curious crowd at the North American International Auto Show and introduced a radical concept car to the world.
Lutz, then the vice chairman of product development for General Motors, revealed the first electric plug-in concept car from a major automaker: the Chevrolet Volt. He still calls it the most important car the company has ever made, despite some of the pitfalls it has experienced.
Five years later, Lutz stood in front of another curious crowd in Detroit's Cobo Center. This time, as a member of Via Motors' board of directors, he introduced vehicles he thinks make even more sense than the Volt: a line of extended-range electric fleet vehicles that could eventually whet the appetites of Americans hungry for both big cars and fuel efficiency.
The thing with the Volt is that you have to convince Americans to get into smaller vehicles, which is gradually happening anyway, Lutz said in an interview with the International Business Times at the Detroit Auto Show on Tuesday.
But if you look at the average American and the mainstream American, their real heart's desire is a big pickup truck or sports utility. One of the reasons I'm excited about this is that this ensures the future of the big sport utilities and pickup trucks.
Via Motors, based in California, will attempt to take advantage of that eventually -- potentially as early as 2013. But for now, Via, a company that transforms GM trucks, cargo vans and SUVs into hybrid-electric models will market thousands of them to fleet companies both in the United States and abroad, as well as government fleets. But some analysts are skeptical about Via competing in the consumer market.
Via already has one customer -- Pacific Gas and Electric Co., the nation's largest utility company -- which used a pilot program of the truck in 2011 and will expand that deal this year. Lutz said the company has gotten orders from Verizon and Coca-Cola as well.
These fleets have already realized that they can save millions of dollars by converting to clean electric technology, Lutz said.
At Via's press conference, Lutz also introduced the company's first customer -- PG&E senior vice president Greg Pruett, who has more than 30 years of experience in the utility industry.
PG&E spokesman Dave Meisel told the International Business Times that the company was very pleased with the pilot program, because it delivered on its promise of better fuel efficiency and led to more savings.
Via's vehicles come equipped with a 30- to 40-mile electric range and run on advanced, non-flammable, lithium ion batteries. After the electric range is met, the vehicle's electric generator kicks in and can power the car on gas for up to 400 miles. This would help alleviate any potential problems with emergency situations for the fleets. Via said the vehicles average about 100 miles per gallon equivalent in electric mode.
Via's a small company with a big idea, Via CEO Alan Perriton said, who spent more than 30 years in management roles with GM.
The small company planted its seeds as far back as eight to 10 years ago, when a small group of engineers, researchers and scientists developed motors and generators with more efficiency.
Most of the industry focused on small cars until GM showed interest. That's when Via, which was then intertwined with engineering company Raser Technologies, began the Hummer Project. The idea was to take a gas-guzzler and turn it into a fuel-efficient machine.
It worked. Its version of the Hummer, powered with the same technology that lives on through Via, averaged more than 100 mpg.
We took the worst offender, what's considered to be the ugliest car on the market as far as pollution, and turned it into the greenest vehicle on the planet, Mark Burdge, Via's director of government fleet programs, told the IB Times.
Via Motors formed about 18 months ago as a privately held and funded company.
Pruett said in Detroit that if PG&E converted all of its 3,500 fleet vehicles to Via's electric-based platform, it would save $9.5 million per year in fuel costs alone. Adding in what he estimates the company would save on maintenance -- $7,000 per car total -- that adds up to a savings of $24.5 million.
Those are big numbers for big fleets, Pruett said.
Pruett said that one of the most attractive components of Via is that it refurbishes GM vehicles and slightly modifies them with its own technology. That eliminates a radical change for the company and keeps familiarity with the vehicles its workers drive, he said.
Familiarity is something Via hopes will translate to the consumer market. But Michael Omotoso, a senior automotive analyst at LMC Automotive, disputed Lutz's theory that consumers would flock to electric versions of large vehicles. Omotoso said companies are already trending toward much better fuel economy in trucks.
The fuel economy of trucks is improving all the time, Omotoso said. Ford has the EcoBoost engine in the F-150 that has been very successful. We do expect more diesels, which have 25 percent better fuel economy. We should see an increase in V-6 engines in trucks instead of V-8 engines.
We will see improvement in fuel economy in these trucks as opposed to a shift to electric vehicles, which are very expensive.
But Omotoso agreed that Via could find many partners in fleets. But it will face competition from bigger companies like Nissan, which unveiled its e-NV200 concept van this week at the Detroit Auto Show, and similar established companies like Bright Automotive, which signed a contract in 2009 with the U.S. Army TACOM.
Lutz thinks Via Motors' concept will resonate with consumers that want or need bigger vehicles, for work or personal purposes such as vacations and camping or hunting trips. But for the short term, he acknowledges that the electric transformation may be gradual.
That's not the market Via is going after initially, Lutz said. I will tell you, Via can live for years off the fleet demand.