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Steve Landeen, Deseret News
Employees at VIA Motors in Orem replace the drive system in fleet vehicles with the VIA drive system. The company recently received a $20 million contract to supply electric pickups and vans to more than 50 fleets.

OREM — A small Utah County company is attempting to make big strides in the automobile industry.

A handful of VIA employees in Orem are taking gasoline-powered vehicles and "electrifying" them — that is, adding electric motors, generators and other gadgets.

It’s part of a $20 million contract to upgrade more than 50 participating fleets.

"(We) get vehicles from (General Motors). We remove some of the components that come from the factory, and then we replace the drive system with the VIA drive system," said Kraig Higginson, CEO of VIA Motors in Orem. It takes about an hour to make the changeover.

The result is an electric-powered vehicle that gets about 40 miles on a charge before the gas engine takes over. There's nothing new about that, but VIA Motors has found a niche.

“The vehicles that consume most of the fuel in America today are not Toyota Prius or Corollas, the little cars. It’s the big vehicles,” Higginson said. “So if I'm going to work on a solution for saving fuel that's being burned in America and around the world, I've got to attack the vehicles that use it.”

According to Higginson, light-duty pickup trucks, vans and SUVs consume about 70 percent of all the fuel used in the U.S.

“They are gas guzzlers,” he said.

Businesses with large fleets, such as Coca-Cola, FedEx, utility companies and universities, use vehicles to drive similar, short routes every day, Higginson said.

“So if you can take a 12 mpg vehicle — a truck, a van or SUV — and take it to 100 mpg, that's a lot more powerful than taking Toyota Corolla-sized vehicles from 35 to 50,” he said.

VIA began working with some of those companies to see if the modifications make a difference. The company is installing VIA technology called VTRUX in each vehicle that will record and transmit real-time data to allow the Department of Energy to quantify improvements in fuel economy and emissions.

A California utility, Pacific Gas and Electric, has been using these vehicles for two years.

"They estimate they'll save between $9 million and $11 million a year in their fleet by converting to standard-range electric trucks that we have," Higginson said.

In the vehicles, a volleyball-sized electric motor gives the vehicle the same power as a V-8 engine and triple-digit mileage — roughly 105 mpg.

"By the end of 2014, we hope to have 10,000 units produced and out the door. The next year it will double, and the next year it will double again," Higginson said.

With those kinds of projections, VIA is already planning to expand its vehicle work areas and bring on additional employees.

In the near future, the company plans to begin working with consumers who want to take advantage of the same technology in their personal vehicles.

Email: kmccord@deseretnews.com