Posted on May 17, 2023
For another in our series of Cornerstone Stories, at our May 17 in-person meeting, Dave Stewart introduced and then interviewed Nick Bettis, the Vice President of Marketing & Sales Operations for Loveland-based Lightning eMotors.  Mr. Bettis started off with a short video that introduced the firm and showed some of the medium-duty trucks and busses that they manufacture based on GM and Ford chassis. The chassis starting off with existing with internal combustion engine and its associated power train and are electrified to become fully zero emission.   
After the video, Mr. Bettis gave us a brief history of the company.  In the early 2000s, Tim Reeser, the Co-Founder and CEO of the company, had a group of students at CSU who were interested in competing for the X-Prize: a national competition to create a vehicle that can travel 100 miles on one gallon of gas.  The students created a vehicle that would work but couldn’t afford the insurance required for participating in the actual contest so they couldn’t compete.  However, they took the vehicle to the Denver Auto Show and at least one viewer said that he wasn’t interested in a car but would be interested in a truck.  So they created a company which, in 2009, started turning out specialized and sustainable fleet vehicles based on their innovative hydraulic/gasoline power train.  Starting in 2018, they switched over to complete zero-emission vehicles for all sorts of medium-duty vans, busses, trucks, school buses, city buses, and motor coaches. 
What would they do if a company approached them about getting 1000 vehicles?  He responded that they would start by engaging in a needs analysis with the company, exploring what they would be using the vehicles for, how far they would be driven in a day, how big a load they would be carrying, and what their charging infrastructure might look like.  Once they had a conceptual structure in place, Lightning eMotors could potentially produce the 1000 vehicles at a rate of two to three vehicles per day. 
Do they create a vehicle from scratch, or do they start with a gas- or diesel-powered vehicle?  At the present time, they start with a fully assembled gas- or diesel-powered vehicle or with a chassis with engine and power train already on board.  They remove the engine (which, especially if it is gas-powered) they sell, leaving the power train intact, which is how the power is delivered from the electric motor to the wheels.  Ultimately, they expect to be able to acquire what are called “gliders” which is just the chassis without the engine included. 
Can these vehicles peel rubber for 50 feet?  No, but they do have more torque than a gas-powered vehicle, so they have fast acceleration. 
What about charge- or range-anxiety?  Although this is still a perceived concern for electric passenger vehicle users, Lightening caters to fleets that serve local markets, so the vehicles are typically on set, predictable routes that are 200 miles or less and spend the night at a depot, so they can be charged overnight.  Their business model focuses on honesty and the market, so they work hard to give the customer the vehicle system that he needs. They might recommend that the company have one level-2 AC charger for each vehicle (approximately 8 hours to charge the vehicle) and one additional level-3 DC charger (approximately 1.5 to 2 hours to charge).  This fast charger can then be used to opportunity charge during a driver’s break to accommodate longer routes. The vehicles have onboard telematics that allow Lightening to identify and frequently correct issues before their customer experiences any downtime. The company has so far produced over 600 vehicles with a total usage of over 4 million miles. 
What about financials and manpower for the company?  The company started as a private venture with several investors; British Petroleum (bp), who is evolving to be a holistic energy company , is their largest backer and has been very supportive.  The evolving government mandates have been very beneficial.  As for manpower, located in northern Colorado with three major universities nearby, they have access to a large reservoir of engineering talent; they currently have nearly 250 employees, many of them engineers.  They have an R&D department that currently occupies as much space as the company did in its entirety at the beginning.  That department is looking into a number of advanced technologies including such areas as hydrogen fuel cells. 
Will rare-earth metal availability be an issue?  Lithium, with China as a source, is in the news a lot, but actually Australia provides more Lithium than China and some US sources are being developed.  There are also a number of other possible technologies being developed so that Lithium (and some of the other rare earths) may become less of a potential choke point.  They feel that they have a sustainable supply chain group. 
What about battery fires?  The batteries that Lightning uses are thermally managed meaning they are liquid cooled and heated to keep the batteries in the “sweetheart” zone of about 70 degrees. This functionality also makes the batteries more efficient and extends the life. 
Will this company be a long-term success or just a good story?  Mr. Bettis feels that the company will be a long-term success. He feels fleet electrification will be a big part of climate change battle along with other technologies such as hydrogen fuel cell technology, which, incidentally, are still driven by an electric motor.  Long haul cargo transportation is a great example of an excellent use case for hydrogen.
The batteries that they currently use come in 40 kilowatt-hour packs and certain vehicles can scale up on how many packs can be used on them. The ZEV3 passenger or cargo vans, for example, can have 40, 80, or 120kWh of packs installed. This modularity enables Lightning to right size vehicles to a customer’s specific use case. Each 40 kWh pack weighs around 500 pounds. 
A couple AI questions:  Are they doing anything with autonomous driving?  As a company they are not, but they are partnering with other companies that are doing research in that area.  Are they delving into machine learning?  The sensors in the vehicles generate about 200 data points per second which are sent back to Loveland for analysis of, for example, estimating range or early detection of maintenance issues. 
What about cost for the electrification?  The actual customization of the chassis costs around $80000 since much of the equipment on the original vehicle continues to be used in the electrified version.  There are few moving parts in the motor, so maintenance cost is reduced. 
Since most of the tax revenue to support vehicular infrastructure comes from gasoline tax, how are roads to be paid for?  Mr. Bettis didn’t answer the question directly but did say that Colorado is becoming a very electric-friendly state along with California, New York, and New Jersey.   

Given the extremely poor air quality in other countries (India was mentioned), is Lightening considering possible impact on other countries?  There is certainly an emphasis on developing countries, many of which are wanting to bring the technology to their areas.