Blue Arc Amps up for EV Production

Shyft Group’s EV subsidiary Blue Arc is lighting the path for the electrification of last-mile delivery vehicles as well as mobile charging solutions.

Blue Arc is Shyft Group’s EV subsidiary which aims to provide electrification solutions for the commercial sector. (Blue Arc)

In June of 2020, while the world was still coming to grips with the COVID-19 pandemic, Spartan Motors announced that it was rebranding as The Shyft Group. Following this reorganization, Shyft announced in March of 2022 that it was launching a subsidiary, Blue Arc EV Solutions, to design and manufacture battery electric vehicles for last-mile delivery.

Shyft believes that Blue Arc van will help lead the way for electrification of the last mile delivery sector. (Blue Arc)

The prototype Blue Arc van body and chassis was revealed at NTEA’s 2022 Work Truck Week in Indianapolis, Indiana, as well as a concept for a mobile charging station dubbed the Power Cube (BEV Truck Manufacturers Charge Ahead at 2022 NTEA Show). Following the reveal of their prototypes, Shyft invited journalists to the M1 Concourse in Pontiac, Michigan to see the proof-of-concept versions of both the delivery van and the Power Cube.

SAE Media was on hand to note the latest updates on both products, as well as sample the driving experience of the van in its current state of development. Blue Arc also had several SMEs on hand to provide further details on the van’s chassis and propulsion system, as well as the refinement of the Power Cube based on feedback from potential customers and government agencies.

An anti-startup

Daryl Adams, President and CEO of The Shyft Group, is adamant that Blue Arc is more than another Johnny-come-lately among the dizzying array of new commercial EV manufacturers. “The EV fleet segment filled with startups”, he said during his presentation, “we are the anti-startup.”

Adams’ company certainly has the chops to back up that claim. Shyft has been in the commercial chassis space in one form or another for nearly half a century. The Michigan-based firm has a proven production history and currently assembles commercial vehicles ranging from vocational trucks to RV chassis.

“Half of all parcel-delivery vehicles on the road today were produced by Shyft,” said Adams. “We are a proven fleet provider and are the only OEM manufacturing the chassis and the body in-house for Class 3-5. We feel that we are poised to lead this EV evolution.”

The green mile

To start that evolution, Shyft chose last-mile delivery as its catalyst. “We believe last-mile delivery will be the first segment to successfully transition,” Adams said. The van features a ladder-frame chassis that will be available in Class 3 through 5 configurations with body length options ranging from 12 to 22 feet (3.6 to 6.7 meters).

The Blue Arc van is powered by a 120-240 kWh lithium-ion battery pack that Shyft claims can deliver a 150-mile (241-km) range at 50% payload, with additional range courtesy of optional battery packs. Adams stated that the company is “very comfortable” with the validity of their advertised range. Blue Arc lists a total charge time from two to six hours.

There will be four wheelbase options, 178-in., 190-in., 208-in. and 230-in. (4,521-mm, 4826-mm, 5283-mm and 5842-mm), which according to Shyft will support a wide array of applications and will allow customers to optimize cost of ownership, energy usage and maintenance costs.

Adams confirmed to SAE Media that Shyft already has received the first preorder for Blue Arc vans. The Randy Marion Automotive Group based in the Carolinas reportedly placed an order with Blue Arc for 2,000 units in fall 2022. Adams also confirmed that plans for production of the vans will be finalized for a location “somewhere in the Midwest” by the middle of 2023 and that Shyft has had interest from other OEMs such as RV manufacturers.

“At the end of the day, we know what our end users want, what their experience is, and do ride-and-drives with their drivers”, said Adams. “We have demonstrated our agility to add capacity to meet customer demands.”

Deep dive

The components used to build the Blue Arc van are sourced from Tier 1 suppliers such as Akebono, Bosch, Dana, Hendrickson and Proterra.

Bosch supplied its Servotwin steering system, while Akebono was tapped for the van’s brakes. The e-axle is a Dana ES9000r unit with a peak power output of 240 kW and a maximum torque output of output 9,000 Nm (6638 lb-ft).

The e-axle features a set of double reduction helical gears, which eliminates the need for a ring and pinion. This design reportedly improves overall driveline efficiency by 3-4%. The axle also features an electronic parking brake with an integrated mechanical linkage for the Akebono calipers.

The batteries are supplied by Proterra. The frame displayed for the media featured two packs, each with 82 kw of capacity. The packs feature cylindrical cells from LG which are liquid-cooled. “Battery packs are a lot like people, they like to be around 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21° C),” said Eric Reynolds, senior director channel sales for Proterra.

Reynolds also outlined the ballistic-grade casing Proterra uses for its packs. “It’s a very bad life to be a Proterra pack,” he said. “We do everything we can think of, from submerging to shooting them to create some sort of event in the pack.” The batteries are rated for 4,400 cycles, which translates to at least a decade of service life in this application, according to Shyft. The van can be fitted with up to three packs.

The packs necessitated a wider frame than is normally used for this type of van to accommodate battery location. Jason Shiffler, business unit director at Hendrickson, described how his company helped Shyft develop the suspension and manage the ride-and-handling balance of the Blue Arc van.

“Obviously, we’re managing more unsprung mass than we were in the past,” he said. But on heavier class 8 vehicles, there’s a lot of applications that have large gearboxes or even a large parking brake, so this is something we’ve managed with suspension technology for a long time.”

Shiffler continued saying, “One thing that Shyft was very particular on was ride and handling.

“This is why we spec’d a large single-leaf spring suspension,” he continued. “This configuration is not only lightweight, but also provides a performance benefit. We developed a variable rate curve under load with a constant ride frequency. Usually in these vans they have a much different ride performance when they’re loaded versus unloaded. But we were able to maintain a constant ride quality regardless of the load state of this vehicle.”

The wider frame also enabled simplification of the suspension components needed to meet Shyft’s ride-and-handling targets. “There’s always a tradeoff between ride quality and roll stability,” Shiffler said. The way the rest of the industry manages that is usually with anti-roll bars. But you’ll notice there’ s no sway bars on this vehicle. What enables that is this wide frame rail. So, we get that high primary roll stiffness with the wider spring spacing, but don’t have to sacrifice ride comfort as a result.”

There also is no shackle on the rear leaf spring. Shiffler explained that this is a patented design by Hendrickson which also helps maintain ride-and-handling balance based on load. “That’s the magic of how the variable-rate curve works,” he said. “It actually over-constrains the spring. So as the spring deflects, it builds rate because it’s pulling in on the frame brackets by design.”

Shyft Sr. Vice President and General Manager Eric Fisher outlined the thermal-management system of the Blue Arc van. “There's multiple valves that divert the antifreeze to the heaters, the compressor or into the loop to the front radiator,” Fisher said. “They're isolated but they're not isolated. The drivetrain can generate a lot of heat, so we take that energy and use it to heat the cabin. We're always sharing some of that energy from the truck to increase its performance. It’s all about optimization and trying to make sure that you maintain and reduce the energy use.”

Fisher also detailed aspects of the Blue Arc van’s automotive-grade composite body, which reportedly was designed to be as modular and flexible as possible for the various body lengths Shyft intends to offer. Fisher pointed out that the body alone represented an estimated 20% weight reduction compared to a non-composite-bodied van. The model that was used as a demonstrator tips the scales at roughly 9,000 lb. (4,082 kg). This body has been in production for three years on other Shyft products.

On the track

SAE Media piloted the Blue Arc van for a lap around the test track at M1 Concourse. While the demo unit still was not production-ready, it was apparent from behind the wheel and looking under the skin that this was far from an engineering mule with a hastily fastened body.

SAE Media has also toured Shyft’s engineering facility in Plymouth, Michigan, where Adams and Fisher provided a detailed walkthrough of the changes the company had already made from the frame displayed at Truck Week in Indianapolis. Many of the changes centered around optimization of production and ease of assembly, as well as tweaks to improve the ride and handling.

It doesn’t take long in the driver seat of the Blue Arc van to appreciate the efforts Shyft put into vehicle dynamics. For those with experience driving conventional box trucks, driving a commercial vehicle that exhibits reasonable ride manners when unladen is a revelation.

Also appreciated was the attention Shyft has devoted to driver ergonomics. The company had a contemporary delivery van on hand for a point of comparison. The seating position, step-in height, outward visibility and overall driver comfort were clearly superior to the traditional van and obviously were priorities in the Blue Arc’s design.

The Blue Arc van also is equipped with modern ADAS features such as active emergency braking, lane-keep assist, adaptive cruise control, a 360º camera with a HD display, parking sensors and blind-spot detection.

Power cubed

Blue Arc worked with several Tier 1 suppliers to develop the chassis for their electric van. (Blue Arc)

Though Shyft has put forth a considerable amount of effort in developing and promoting its EV delivery van, the Power Cube is just as promising a concept. Ted Jacquay, senior product manager for Shyft Innovations, discussed the features of the Power Cube, which also was on display at M1 Concourse as a proof of concept.

“We used to call it an EV charger,” said Jacquay. “But (we) started referring to it as a ‘microgrid,’ because after talking to customers, we found out that there’s so many more potential uses for it.” The Power Cube features both 110v and 220v hookups and carries up to 3MW of onboard power. It supports both SAE Level 2 and 120v DC-fast charging capabilities and as was demonstrated at the event. The cube’s inverters can bring in single-phase power and convert to three-phase for DC-to-DC fast charge.

The Blue Arc van’s cooling system helps maintain an optimal operating temperature in the battery pack. (Blue Arc)

“It’s like a big reservoir”, said Jacquay. “It can charge all day long while trucks are out making their deliveries, and when they come back at night you plug them in. We can charge about ten trucks on this station but can add capacity as needed.” The batteries in the Power Cube are currently air-cooled, but Shyft is planning to transition to liquid-cooled units targeted to provide more controlled cooling in harsh environments. The battery packs in the Blue Arc van are liquid-cooled, which means they could see use in the Power Cube once they have reached 80% life, extending their use for 10-15 years.

The concept for the Power Cube was born from talking with potential customers and utilities for the EV van. “About six months ago, after we had stared the EV project, a lot of customers had come to us saying one of the challenges we have is getting up to speed and outfitting our facilities to a point where we can actually start charging units,” Jacquay explained.

“We (also) talked with Duke Energy at the ACT Expo and they explained that it can take anywhere from 18-36 months get a new transformer installed that is capable of charging 20-30 trucks. So at that point we asked, what can we do? And that’s where this idea came from.”

The unit can store energy from the gird or a generator, with supplemental supply via solar. The optional solar panel tracks with the sun and can add up to 30 kWh of capacity after six hours of sun. The company also is in talks with a supplier in the U.K. for outfitting the cube with windmill power generators ranging from 30-40 kWh. “Our goal is to capture as much energy as possible,” said Jacquay.

As impressive as the Power Cube’s flexibility for gathering power is, its best party trick may be its mobility. It features a remote-controlled hydrostatic drive that can position the unit once it is dropped at the desired charge site. The max speed of the unit is a relatively turtle-like 5 mph (8 km/h), but thanks to its airless tires and max ground clearance of 10.5 in. (26.6 cm), the Power Cube is capable of traversing terrain far more challenging than a paved lot.

The airless tires are a necessary design choice, as the demonstrated model reportedly weighs more than 28,000 pounds (12,700 kg). The final weight figure for the production version will vary depending on the size configuration chosen by the end user, but it’s safe to say transporting the Power Cube will require more than a U-Haul. Shyft has not announced pricing structure for the Power Cube, but has confirmed that 10-, 20- and 30-ft (3-, 6- and 9.1-m) configurations will be available.

Series production reportedly is slated for late 2023. Though there are other similar mobile power stations currently on the market, Shyft believes the flexibility and mobility of the Power Cube’s design makes it unique.

Shyft also points out that while the debate for how to fund the charging infrastructure necessary for the transition to EVs is ongoing, much of that discussion pertains to charging stations along major highways for light vehicles. “Last-mile delivery vehicles don’t need that,” said Adams. “They need charging at their distribution centers. In our opinion, this is why they’re the most natural use case.”

Jacquay also pointed to the wide variety of use cases for which the Power Cube could be implemented. “We’ve had a lot of interest from the government to use these for disaster-recovery situations,” he said. “The possibilities really are endless.”