Don't look now, but Elon Musk may have just lost the battle for electric trucks.
Earlier this month, Tesla Motors (NASDAQ: TSLA ) CEO Musk pooh-poohed the idea that his company might be interested in building electric delivery trucks for parcel posters FedEx (NYSE: FDX ) and UPS (NYSE: UPS ) . Musk is still mulling the idea of attacking the consumer market for trucks, where Ford (NYSE: F ) sells 60,000 units of its F-150 a month. But the 140,000-odd vehicle delivery fleets at the two giant shippers just aren't big enough to interest him.
Great! Then this latest news won't upset him a bit: Pretty soon, Musk may not have a choice. Pretty soon, he may be locked out of the delivery truck market entirely.
What's that in Tesla's rearview mirror?
Former General Motors (NYSE: GM ) Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, the man who pushed GM into the electric era by championing development of the Chevy Volt, took the stage at the LA Auto Show in Los Angeles this past week to unveil his latest project. You guessed it: an electric truck.
Now a director at privately owned VIA Motors, Lutz announced this week that his new company will soon begin production of "the world's first full size, four-wheel-drive, electric pickup trucks and vans," the very vehicles that Musk was dissing earlier this month. And if Musk doesn't see the potential in these vehicles, Lutz very much does.
VIA, run by company President (and former GM exec) Alan Perriton, thinks that by putting Volt-like engine-plus-electric technology inside a basic truck or van chassis, it can generate enough savings on gasoline costs to quickly pay a buyer back for the pricier cost of the modified vehicle.
VIA aims to begin producing its new electric van before the year is over. If successful, production will then ramp up, and two more electrified vehicles will be added to the lineup in 2014. At present, the company aims to produce:
- A 4WD half-ton pick-up truck based on GM's Chevy Silverado crew cab.
- A three quarter ton cargo van based on the Chevy Express.
- a passenger van -- likewise derived from the Express.
VIA says it will be "working hand-in-hand with OEMs like General Motors" to take their basic internal combustion engine-powered trucks and vans, and "electrify" them with electric motors that can be supplemented with electricity generated by small, onboard gasoline engines -- much like the Volt.
What it means for Tesla
VIA says it already has a "backlog" of fleet orders that it can begin working on immediately. Thus, it sounds like the company has already begun marketing to the kinds of big commercial customers that Tesla put up for grabs. More troubling for Tesla, VIA says it will also begin taking orders for consumer sales next year. According to Musk, Tesla won't even begin thinking about electric truck sales for five more years.
By that time, the electric truck market may be lost to Tesla for good.
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