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Lordstown Motors' Big Gamble on Hub Motors

Electric cars are gaining traction in the marketplace as Tesla builds a devoted following.

But is America ready for an all-electric pickup truck?

The start-up Lordstown Motors is betting on it.

They’re hoping to produce America’s first electric pickup, and part of Lordstown’s gamble is a different approach to electric motors.

Forget the roar of a V-8, a subtle whirring may be the sound of the pickup of the future.

At least that’s what Steve Burns, CEO of Lordstown Motorsis betting on.

Burns last year bought the former GM Lordstown plant to build his new Endurance all-electric pickup truck, honoring the community by naming his company after the village.

photo of pickup truck
Lordstown Motors is hoping to be the first all-electric pickup truck sold in America. The coronavirus has pushed back projected delivery dates to mid-to-late 2021.

“We’re here to put Lordstown on the back of every tailgate we make,” said Burns.

What he won’t be putting into the pickup is a typical truck engine.

“This vehicle has four moving parts in the drivetrain, that’s the four wheels,” he said.

Inside those four wheels are electric motors that Burns says are larger versions of those seen scattered on sidewalks in American cities.

“You see Lime or Bird scooters, the invention that made all those happen is the hub motor.”

Actually the hub motorgoes back to the dawn of the automobile.

Ferdinand Porsche debuted his hub-motor car at the 1900 Paris Exhibition.

Burns debuted his pickup last week

What happens when you put the motors outside the vehicle?
The sleek truck took a couple laps around the plant before gliding onto the stage, where passenger Vice President Mike Pence offered modest praise.

photo of pickup truck
The 6 million sq.ft. former GM plant in Lordstown is being converted to produce the all-electric Endurance. Around 600 workers will be hired to stamp bodies, assemble cabs, and produce the vehicle's battery pack and hub motors.

“I gotta tell you it’s a nice ride," said Pence, "and I’m a truck guy.”

But why did it take 120 years for another car maker to use hub motors on a commercial vehicle?

One reason, according to engineer and electric power author Sam Davis, is physics.

“The feature they call the unsprung mass," said Davis, "that’s the weight of the motor carried in each powered wheel.”

Imagine the feeling you get when you swing your arms holding a gallon of milk in each hand. The momentum, especially when out of sync, can toss your body like a rag doll.

Each Endurance hub-motor weighs around 70 pounds, add in the tire weight, and it’s more than twice as heavy as an average pickup wheel.

Davis says it can be hard to maintain the balance of all that weight shifting outside the springs.

“Every time the car hits a bump, or a pot hole, or a speed bump all the weight has to get started in one direction and then move in the opposite direction,” with potentially unsettling results said Davis.

Burns confided that it was a challenge.

photo of a hub motor
The Elaphe L1500 hub motor is the platform used by Lordstown Motors for it's new Endurance pickup truck.

“The suspension, to handle the unsprung weight, to dampen that appropriately, that was a lot of work,” he acknowledged.

But he’s confident his engineers sufficiently tackled it.

“Some of these things are subjective, but we believe it will handle better than any pickup made,” said Burns.

It's all in the software
Part of that handling equation is the computer software that controls the hub motors.

Burns began his career in software development and it still drives his approach to car making.

photo of factory
A skeleton crew of a couple dozen engineers are working to retool and reconfigure the GM's former Cruze plant to make the new Lordstown Motors Endurance all-electric pickup truck. CEO Steve Burns says the pandemic has set the production target of Dec. 2020 back at least five months, and likely longer.

“To me, they’re software with a lot of metal wrapped around them,” he said.

Industry watcher Robert Schoenberger said getting the hub motors synched is the first step.

“Then they can take on some really fascinating ideas on how to control those,” he said.

Schoenberger said the electronic control of each wheel’s speed makes hub motors excel at precision cornering.

“And it gets really crazy when you start talking about things like running the wheels in different directions,” he said, which allows what those in the industry call 'tank turns'.

Burns emphasized that he’s not going crazy with the software just yet, but his computer system is ready to handle the very serious situation of a dead hub-motor.

“Say a motor in front failed," said Burns. "We would in a millisecond switch off the other front motor so it doesn’t pull to the right or left, and you can still get home with the two rear wheels.”

Lordstown's big gamble
Lordstown Motors is licensing their hub-motor design from a Slovenian company called Elaphe (pronounced el-LAFF-ee).

You Tube video shows Elaphe’s motors slammed against concrete, dipped in mud, bathed in salt spray, and frozen solid. Other videos show hub motor equipped cars speeding over a frozen lake without spinning off into oblivion.

Burns said his hub motors are ready for Ohio roads and winters, “in ice, hitting pot holes, simulating 200,000 miles of abuse.”

Sharon Carty, editor-in-chief of Car and Driver is cautiously optimistic about Lordstown’s willingness to try something new.

“It could be a disaster, it could be great," said Carty. "It’s hard to tell from the outside until you actually get your hands on these things.”

Carty said, while hub motor technology has come of age, “whether or not the buying public is ready for electric pickup trucks is a different story.”

Lordstown Motors is focusing on the fleet vehicle market which may be willing to take that risk if the economics make sense.

It already has 14,000 orders lined up for next summer when, coronavirus allowing, the first trucks will roll off the line.

Jeff St. Clair is the midday host for Ideastream Public Media.