San Francisco start-up company Motiv Power Systems is looking to fill a “gap” that it says exists in the commercial electric vehicle market. According to Jim Castelaz, CEO of the company, which launched in 2009, there are limited choices in the industry when it comes to electric vehicle options for fleets. “We want to fill this gap that is missing within the industry,” he says. “Fleets are used to being able to customize their vehicles…and I think the electric chassis out there are limited.”

Unlike electric vehicle powertrain manufacturers such as Azure Dynamics, which was liquidated in November of last year, or truck manufacturer Smith Electric Vehicles, Motiv takes a different approach to solving the electrification equation. Motiv doesn’t bother with making the components necessary to power a vehicle, and because of that, Castelaz says, its system, the ePCS, is compatible with nearly any type of chassis. And there is interest out there in the product, as evidenced by a contract worth up to $13.4 million the city of Chicago recently awarded the company to supply all-electric Class 8 refuse trucks.

“What we offer is really a suite of controllers; it’s the glue,” he says. “We’re trying to give fleets like Chicago the option to [get the trucks they want].”

The Motiv system operates much like a military field general. The general is responsible for all the troops in the field, coordinating their movements and actions to achieve maximum efficiency. The Motiv system is really a software and hardware solution that brings together different components of an electric-drive system and coordinates the operation of the system into a highly efficient power source.

According to Castelaz, the beauty of the system is its cost savings. Off-the-shelf batteries can be used and bundled together (even from different manufacturers) to provide the power needed. This approach, he says, is more cost-efficient than building a bigger battery system.

Other components can also be mixed and matched, allowing fleets the option to pick components based on their own criteria, be that power, reliability, or price. It also reduces maintenance costs, Castelaz claims. For instance, if a battery pack goes bad, the entire pack must be replaced at significant cost. Under that same scenario, though, a truck running the Motiv system only needs to replace the one battery that has gone bad, resulting in maintenance savings.

The best advantage? The ability to electrify nearly any type of chassis, Castelaz points out. Over the past nine months or so, Motiv has been testing an all-electric Ford E-450 cutaway chassis bus running the system. The contract with Chicago will be the first implementation of the system on a Class 8 vehicle, but Castelaz says that the flexibility and scalability of the system, which can handle any number of batteries to increase power as needed, is such that a wide range of chassis could operate using the system.

Alternative power options ranging from electric to natural gas are starting to really penetrate the market, and Motiv’s system is just another option in that mix. Where it fits at this point is anyone’s guess, but given the questions that have arisen of late about the future of electric vehicles—both commercial and consumer—perhaps Motiv’s “plug-and-play” approach is coming along at just the right time.