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Azure Dynamics and Utilimaster converting Ford E-Series into hybrid commercial vehicles

Jan. 1, 2009
Gasoline prices may have tanked in recent months, but that has not kept Utilimaster Corporation from doing what few truck body manufacturers dare to do:

Gasoline prices may have tanked in recent months, but that has not kept Utilimaster Corporation from doing what few truck body manufacturers dare to do: repower the chassis.

We aren't talking about dropping in a remanufactured short block, either. The Wakarusa, Indiana, company is converting new Ford E-450 chassis into hybrid trucks that provide customers with fuel savings and reduced exhaust emissions.

Azure Dynamics Corporation selected Utilimaster to produce hybrid trucks for other truck body manufacturers in addition to serving as a mounting platform for its own truck body installations.

Azure Dynamics developed the hybrid electric powertrains that Utilimaster is installing in the E-Series for commercial fleet vehicles. Azure supplies the components needed for the conversion, and Utilimaster installs the electric motor, batteries, computer controls, and other components that make the vehicle capable of running on electric power while retaining the full capabilities of the Ford 5.4-liter gasoline engine that comes from the factory.

Early in 2008, Azure signed a memorandum of understanding with Utilimaster for the assembly, hybridization, and manufacturing engineering of Azure's Balance parallel hybrid electric drivetrain system in commercial delivery vans and shuttle buses.

Under terms of the memorandum, Azure provides Utilimaster with its Balance hybrid electric powertrains. Utilimaster then installs the equipment and electronics so that the hybrid system works seamlessly with the electronic controls that Ford builds into the E-Series commercial chassis.

“This business arrangement with Utilimaster represents a vital link in our supply chain for the production of our Balance parallel hybrid electric commercial delivery vans and shuttle buses. We expect this agreement will result in significant cost efficiencies as we increase production volumes of the Ford E-Series hybrid vehicles,” says Scott Harrison, chief executive officer of Azure Dynamics. “As a major Ford pool account, Utilimaster has extensive knowledge of the Ford E-Series chassis and meets all of the Ford process and quality requirements.”

How it works

Vehicles equipped with Azure hybrid systems have logged over 25 million miles. The version Utilimaster is using is the Azure Balance hybrid electric drive designed for Ford's E450 cutaway and strip chassis.

More than just a motor, the hybrid electric drive system also manages the conventional 5.4 liter Triton gasoline engine and the five-speed automatic TorqShift transmission.

The parallel hybrid chassis that Utilimaster is producing combines the best features of the Triton gas engine with a 280-volt motor. The conversion process includes a fail-safe system that enables full functionality of the gasoline engine if needed.

During the course of the conversion process, the Ford engine remains in place. However, Utilimaster personnel remove Ford components ahead of the engine, replacing some and reinstalling others. For example, the single factory fan is replaced by an electrically powered series of three smaller fans. The three fans help conserve electricity because only the number required to keep the engine cool operate at any one time. One of the Azure computers installed on the chassis monitor engine temperature and determines the number of fans that need to operate.

To install the motor/generator, Utilimaster removes the factory driveshaft and, in its place, installs an electric motor with a short driveshaft on each end — linking the transmission to the motor/generator and connecting the motor/generator to the rear axle.

The traction motor/generator helps propel the vehicle. It also generates power when the brakes are applied, helping slow the vehicle and recharge the batteries. The resistance that the traction motor/generator produces during braking is a significant assist to the truck brakes. Under low-demand braking, the motor/generator is capable of stopping the truck. The result, less wear on the brakes. With the brakes applied less, it is possible to extend lining life by two to three times.

Computer controlled

The Azure parallel hybrid system relies heavily on computer controls in order to operate. Interestingly, it is the Azure control that administers the system. The Ford system, while still in place and operational, is a slave to the Azure controllers.

“It took an extensive period of time to develop,” says John Knudtson, vice-president of new product development at Utilimaster. “There was a lot of engineering, and a lot of cooperation between Azure, the developer of the system, and between Ford and Utilimaster on the hybridization of the truck and body.”

How vital is the computer control? One small example is the system's ability to harness braking to recharge the power bank. Through continuous monitoring of vehicle deacceleration, a computer maximizes the amount of energy harvested from the braking force. The result is better fuel economy and less frequent replacement of brake pads and rotors.

Key features

The hybrid chassis offer a variety of advantages, including:

  • The gasoline engine shuts off when the vehicle is stopped, complying with anti-idle regulations.

  • Auxiliary systems continue to operate with the Triton gasoline engine turned off.

  • Under limited circumstances, the truck can operate purely on electric power. To do so, the batteries must be adequately charged, and the truck must be accelerated slowly to no more than 22 mph. Jay Sandler, Azure's vice-president of sales, says that this is desirable for applications where trucks are driven inside buildings at low speeds for loading and unloading product from the vehicle.

  • Because the electric system shares much of the workload, Ford's OEM components can last longer, including brake lining, the starter motor, the original 12-volt truck battery, and 20-25% greater engine and transmission life.

Environmental advantages

The hybrid is attracting the attention of fleets where environmental issues are a primary concern.

Purolator Courier, for example, has a “Greening the Fleet“ initiative intended to improve fuel economy and lower emissions on its medium-duty trucks.

“Our initial 49 hybrid electric vehicles are working well and achieving significant fuel and greenhouse gas emission reductions,” says Serge Viola, Purolator's national fleet and linehaul director. “This year we have added another 105 units to our fleet. Our goal with the help of our partners Azure Dynamics and Utilimaster Corporation is to acquire as many hybrid vehicles as economically possible during regular annual vehicle replacement buys to achieve our goal to be 80% hybrid in five years.”

According to Utilimaster, the hybrid E-450 reduces emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by up to 20 tons over the expected 10-15 year life of the vehicle.

Early performance data compiled for the hybrid E-450s indicate significant improvements in fuel economy. Here are some of the results:

FedEx: the hybrids averaged 53 miles in daily service. The hybrid truck achieved 8.1 mpg vs 6.1 mpg for the conventional gas engine, a 33% average improvement in fuel economy.

DHL trucks traveled an average of 45 miles per day and also gained an average 33% improvement in fuel economy.

Purolator's experience with 50 hybrid trucks running an average of 38 miles per day averaged 8.2 mpg, 46% better than a conventional gasoline powered model but less than the 10.5 mpg that a comparable diesel truck achieves.

Utilimaster built some economical advantages into its truck body. The walk-in van uses 2,000 pounds of recyclable aluminum and is 900 lb lighter than a comparable steel body.

Filling the order

After working extensively with Ford and Azure to plan the hybridization project, Utilimaster set up the production area.

The 6,000-sq-ft building that Utilimaster setup to house the conversion process is a small fraction of the 600,000 square feet of manufacturing and support facilities that Utilimaster has in Wakarusa. The company started limited production in January 2008 and slowly ramped up for the next five months — building only 20 vehicles during that time. Utilimaster formally launched production in June and has since produced more than 150 vehicles, including 105 for Purolator, and smaller quantities for other delivery fleets.

For orders involving other truck body manufacturers, all work required for the conversion process is performed there, and completed chassis are shipped to the final manufacturer for body installation. Chassis that are to be equipped with Utilimaster bodies (including the walk-in vans currently being produced for Purolator) are completed elsewhere on the Utilimaster campus. The company's location in northern Indiana makes it a convenient home to a variety of truck body manufacturers, including shuttle bus manufacturers who build on the hybrid chassis Utilimaster converts.

“We are really two separate companies — truck upfitter and truck body manufacturer,” says John Marshall, Utilimaster's senior vice president, sales and marketing. “Our sales team is a professional partner to our customers. They understanding the application requirements and recommend cost effective solutions. “

Part of the plan

Utilimaster's new role as a converter of hybrid trucks is consistent with what the company has been striving to offer — to provide solutions, rather than simply building truck bodies.

“Clients ask us to design a productivity package for them, not just a vehicle,” Marshall says. “That means integrating all the components and making the systems work together. The hybrid program is a good example of that value proposition. It's a combination of manufacturing expertise, engineering expertise, and a sales team that understands the fleet managers' needs.”

“We have the breadth, capability, and experience to accommodate the anticipated growth in demand for the Ford E-Series hybrid commercial vans and shuttle buses,” says Mike Kitson, president and chief executive officer of Utilimaster. “We look forward to working with Azure Dynamics and Ford Motor Company in bringing the E-Series hybrid commercial delivery vehicles and shuttle buses to market.”

Anatomy of a hybrid

Azure's parallel hybrid packages a substantial amount of components on a Ford E-450 without appreciably affecting the vehicle's function — transporting cargo in local delivery operations.

Utilimaster removes the factory driveshaft and, in its place, installs an electric motor with a short driveshaft on each end — connecting the 280-volt motor to the OEM powertrain. The design preserves the functionality of the Ford Triton gasoline engine while providing the truck with the ability to go from zero to approximately 22 miles per hour on pure electric power.

Attached to the driver side frame rail are the computer controller for the traction motor, the controller for the integrated starter and generator motor, and a high-voltage junction box. On the right frame rail is the Cobasys advanced nickel metal hydride (NiMH) battery system, along with the electric power assist system motor and controller. The power assist makes it possible to operate the power steering and brakes with the gasoline engine turned off.

Mounted primarily outboard of the frame rails, the hybrid equipment does not appreciably affect body installation. And with minor exceptions such as a vent in cargo area for keeping the electric motor cool, the walk-in van body is identical to bodies mounted on conventional chassis.