Lightning EMotors Adapts to Changing Electrification Market

Colorado-based manufacturer continues to alter strategies to meet shifting demands in the market for electrified commercial vehicles.

Lightning develops a range of electrified commercial vehicles. (Lightning eMotors)

A growing number of commercial truck fleets are moving to electric vehicles, driven partially by government mandates and support funding. For suppliers like Lightning eMotors, that means adapting to changing markets and creating designs for both a range of new vehicles and techniques that efficiently convert aging internal-combustion engine (ICE) vehicles to electrified powertrains.

Lightning’s electric systems are designed to fit onto existing chassis. (Lightning eMotors)

Lightning is currently expanding its efforts in repowering ICE trucks and buses with electric systems, but it’s also inked new vehicle partnerships with General Motors and school bus supplier Blue Bird Corp. Founded in 2008, Lightning began with a focus on hybrid vehicles but switched to fully electric designs in 2016.

“One of our strengths is our ability to pivot,” Nick Bettis, Lightning’s marketing director, said during the recent Lightning Day event at the company’s Colorado headquarters. “Now we’re making a lot of new vehicles, but repowering is coming up quickly. We procured a decent supply of chassis – what we ordered in 2020 is now coming in.”

Repowering got a boost when the federal government opted to provide funding for conversions as part of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill passed in 2021. That’s prompted a sharp increase in demand for converting existing vehicles to electric powertrains. Many fleet owners are making this choice given the current shortage of new vehicles and their high cost.

Repowering also lets fleet owners convert existing vehicles that have been customized with wheelchair lifts, roof-top air conditioners and other equipment. Earlier this year, Lightning expanded a partnership with Forest River, helping the Berkshire Hathaway-owned company repower its gas and diesel vehicles. More than 50,000 Forest River shuttle buses and passenger vans are eligible for these conversions.

“We can take vehicles that are older and in good condition and electrify them through repowering,” Bettis said. “That’s probably not a long-term solution; eventually new vehicles will become more prevalent.”

Shift to new EVs

The shift to new vehicles may become more prevalent within a year. Lightning is currently purchasing Ford Transit chassis, refurbishing them, and selling the ICE powertrains. Lightning’s electric systems are designed to mount to existing holes and leverage radiators to provide water cooling and heating for batteries and other equipment.

In the fourth quarter, the company expects to begin receiving around 250 GM chassis under a partnership signed early this year. Lightning will be the first GM Specialty Vehicle Manufacturer to provide fully electric Class 3 through Class 6 commercial vehicles. GM is gaining expertise in electrification, while Lightning is enhancing its design techniques.

“GM has brought a lot of value for us,” said Lightning eMotors’ CEO Tim Reeser. “They’ve pushed us towards ISO 26262 and helped us with our quality assurance program.”

Lightning also has teamed up with Blue Bird to create an electrified chassis design for buses. That chassis is now ready, putting the two partners in a good position as the federal government plans to unleash roughly $1 billion per year for electric school buses. That funding is set to continue at that level through 2027.

Over the course of Lightning Day, when customers, investors and journalists got an overview of the company’s activities, numerous presenters explained that designing EVs includes several aspects that aren’t central to ICE vehicle designs. Maximizing battery efficiency in commercial vehicles involves many elements that require major engineering efforts. Battery management and motor control are obvious, but aspects such as wiring also play an important role. In ICE vehicles, merely providing 12V connections for upfitters is often all that is required.

Repowering ICE vehicles is currently an important activity in Lightning’s factory. (Lightning eMotors)

“In commercial vehicles, there are many things that are specialized,” Reeser said. “Instead of using the 12V system everyone designed to with ICE vehicles, you might use 400V for a wheelchair lift or the air conditioner. 400V is more efficient, you just need to develop that wiring harness and the CAN bus.”

While moving trucks and buses down the road is a primary design focus, it may not be the only engineering challenge. Battery packs may be enlisted to help support the nation’s power grid and avoid brownouts. Executives also noted that California is exploring techniques for using school bus batteries to help utility companies when grids are strained.

Bus’s battery packs can be charged at night, when rates and demand are both low, and transfer energy back to the grid on days when demand is high. That’s especially effective in summer and on weekends when buses often sit idle. However, Bettis noted that this program will take a lot of cooperation between vehicle owners and utilities.

Supply-chain challenges

Regardless of how batteries are used, supply-chain issues remain a major challenge for production of both repowered and new vehicles. Getting chassis has been difficult, and many components are in short supply.

“The challenges are multifold,” Reeser said. “It’s not just the chassis, it’s hard to get transmission control modules and chips. It’s also hard to get wiring harnesses and connectors. I do think in the next nine months we’ll come out of that. We’ve added new suppliers and we’ve gone to vertical integration. Making our own components is being done out of necessity, not because we necessarily wanted to.”

The need for new designs is fueling expansion at Lightning’s 1 million square-foot facility in Loveland, Colorado. The company added 60 engineers and 15 service team members last year, bringing the total employee count to around 250.