Bison project started in Alberta, prototype produced in Ontario, including 3D printed body parts
The data is pretty clear that electric vehicles (EVs) are still the province of Innovators, the 2.5 per cent of consumers who love their gadgets and will pay a big price premium for new tech. But EVs are beginning to move into market niches where they have a competitive advantage. Havelaar Canada is hoping its prototype Bison electric pick up truck will excite enough interest within industries like oil and gas that it can gain a toehold in the tough automotive industry.
The Bison made its public debut in late May at the EV Show in Markham, Ont. and generated a lot of excitement.
The Bison isn’t just a truck with an electric motor. There are all sorts of innovative design features like composite panels (some of them 3D printed) and a “vehicle systems” design to enhance “vehicle dependability even in the most severe weather and road conditions common in Canada,” according to the company’s press release.
I interviewed head engineer Nathan Armstong about the Bison, which is experiencing its share of birthing pains, but may yet become a fascinating Canadian success story.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Markham: Please give me an overview of the company and the Bison?
Armstrong: So the Bison started as a Canadian project that two companies did three or four years ago as a proposal back when we were doing more private electrical vehicle developments. So we had a biofibre-bodied car out of Alberta that the provincial government gave us some research money to develop. We’d developed these two cars separatly and then the two companies came together and we started Project Eve, trying to get launched with some Canadian OEM activity. And everybody we showed the car to said: “These are great, we’d like to support you, but we want a pickup truck.”
We went back to drawing board, came up with the concept of the Bison, and at that point we couldn’t raise the capital. We stopped the project, which sat for a couple of years until it was spotted by Tony Han, who was a university student at the time. He made some connections to his family’s companies and they wanted to pursue the project so we got to build the truck. It’s a pretty cool story.
Markham: So, now you’ve got a prototype. What’s been the response so far?
Armstrong: The response has been overwhelming. Four years ago, the market for electric vehicles was not ramped up yet. So, our timing couldn’t be better from a market standpoint. People love it so we’ve very pleased with how it’s launched.
Markham: What’s the price point for this truck?
Armstrong: The target is $58,000 for the base model, but it’s early days to be fixing a number. If you look at the Chevy Colorado ZR2, that’s a mid-sized pickup truck pushing $65,000.
Markham: If you look at the electric cars like the Chevy Bolt, they’re generally around twice the cost of the internal combustion engine equivalent. How did you manage to get your cost down to the point where it was competitive with the gas-powered truck?
Armstrong: A substantial part of the cost is the batteries and that cost is coming down quickly. Looking out a year or two, the way it’s headed, $190 a kilowatt/hour kind isn’t going to be uncommon and that’s going to bring down costs to where we can be competitive with that kind of price.
Markham: We heard from LG Chem not long ago that the Bolt’s batteries are $145 a kw/h. Do you think kind of pricing is going to be available to you or is that only available to the big OEMs like GM?
Armstrong: It’s coming down quick. Panasonic announced $190 kw/h. ? But then they sell. Big players in China are moving into the market, so I think it’s reasonable to expect it can be sub-$200 for basically any serious player in the game moving forward.
Markham: So, you’re going to wait to start manufacturing the Bison until batteries come down to a price where you can offer what the market needs at a price the market needs?
Armstrong: No. We have a partnership with the University of Toronto, where we have our electric vehicle research centre, that is testing a variety of batteries. As the vehicle goes for certification, we can work on the batteries. That’s the plan.
There are new battery technologies coming out of the woodwork now, announcements all the time, we might be better off waiting six months, waiting a year or two because I think we’ll see a lot of changes in the battery technology in the very near future.
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Markham: Who’s going to manufacture the power train for you?
Armstrong: The motor and control units are from a Canadian supplier. The transmission is something we’re tackling on our own.
Markham: Is it possible to put together your product with off-the-shelf parts for the most part?
Armstrong: If you look under the skin of most cars, the steering column and the seats and the airbags and pretty much everything are all from tier one suppliers.
But the Bison body is different. It was designed to be steel, but the prototype in composite has gotten so much attention that we might continue down the composite path, which would be really interesting. Basically, we have a hail-proof, dent-proof, corrosion proof truck.
Markham: What can you tell me about the design and manufacture of the composite body?
Armstrong: The body is basically ready for “steel-toeing.” When making the prototype, we engaged with a couple of local companies in Ontario that are pretty up to speed with the latest composites – really low-volume, but super high tech manufacturing process. All the tools were cut in Ontario, parts were made in Ontario, it’s super lightweight, super tough. We could make thousands of vehicles from the tools that we have.
At this point we’re thinking about building the first run of vehicles with the composite body. But we don’t know if we’ll go straight to production with composite materials or if we’re going to switch to a steel body for production.
Markham: Weight is such a big issue with EVs that composite bodies seem to be inevitable?
Armstrong: It’s a cost thing. A steel body is orders of magnitude less expensive than composites. But for lower volumes [like the Bison] investing in the tooling is the tradeoff kind of situation again.
And composite bodies for a mainstream vehicle, I don’t know. The aluminum Ford F150 is causing body shops all sorts of grief. If a composite car gets in an accident and shows up at the body shop, now they’ve got to be able to do composite repair. I’ve always been a big proponent of composites just from the durability standpoint. We’ll figure it out as it goes.
Markham: I understand some of the body parts were 3D printed?
Nathan: There are a lot of 3D-printed pieces on the Bison. Big parts as well as smaller one. From a tech standpoint I think that’s kind of a nice story. That was all done in Ontario by a company that has the biggest 3D printer in North America.
Markham: What size motor are you using?
Nathan: We’re getting a bigger motor with a new controller for the next prototype. The peak torque right now is 510 newton-metres or 376 foot-pounds.
Markham: That’s a fairly torquey motor. Is that one of the major advantages of the Bison?
Armstrong: If you think about electric pickup trucks, they’re difficult to make mechanically efficient because of the nature of the vehicle – big tired, high-ground clearance. The way we gain is on the utility side – great low-speed torque, a massive battery pack if you want to pull power out of it. You could run electric welder for weeks on this battery pack. If you want to pull tree stumps out of the ground, if you want to pull a trailer at low speeds through a field, pull a bail of hay on a trailer, it’s no problem. That’s a big plus for a pick up truck.