Australians love their utes and local startup Roev is converting the traditional gas guzzlers into clean and green machines, writes Jeremy Chunn.
Australians have a love affair with utes. Now a trio of former tech executives aims to make the nation’s favourite set of wheels cleaner by converting petrol and diesel utes into electric.
Like many great ideas, it was incubated by the watercooler when Roev founders Robert Dietz, Noah Wasmer and Paul Slade worked in the cloud division of technology giant Atlassian.
“We used to chat about things we were interested in outside of work,” Dietz tells EcoGeneration. Cars and energy management were two topics, but it was Wasmer who turned words into action by converting a 1967 VW Kombi and Land Rover Defender Perentie to electric.
Classic car conversions are an investment in passion – the Kombi conversion cost Wasmer $70,000 – but Dietz says Roev is pitched squarely at economic rationalists.
“We realised if we were going to have any impact at scale, it wasn’t going to be in the classic car industry,” he says. Instead, the trio started to think about EVs as batteries on wheels, capable of complementing residential solar systems and providing grid services.
“It makes sense that if you can leverage your vehicle for that, it’s a cost-effective way of doing the dual-duty purchase,” says Dietz.
As true techies, they scaled up the idea to a business proposition that would target fleets of utes, including Toyota Hilux and Ford Ranger that are the first and third top-sellers in Australia, respectively.
“We realised that is a prime area for us to dive into,” says Dietz.
Classic cars are easy to convert, but it is a totally different proposition doing it for today’s vehicles. New cars have between 50 and 75 computers, commanding features such as anti-lock braking, airbags, suspension, traction control, emissions control, and cruise control. All of that intelligence is coordinated in a “CAN bus” system, or controller area network hub.
“The engine is the heart of a vehicle,” says Dietz. “If you yank it out, the dashboard will light up like a Christmas tree.”
Dietz says the goal for the Roev team is to convert a modern vehicle in one day.
“You’d drive in, drop out the ICE [internal combustion engine] drivetrain and pop in this kit – think about IKEA-simple installation – and then take out the vehicle,” he says.
Roev’s research is finding that few fleet vehicles cover more than 50km a day. The short-range conversion kits the company is looking at installing can cover 240km.
“That’s one of the reasons we targeted fleets,” says Dietz. “On average, consumers drive 30km a day and fleets do 50km so on a per-vehicle basis you can have more impact going after fleets.”
Amortisation of fleet vehicles usually sees book values written down to zero after three years. A conversion – from $47,990 for 2WD to $57,990 for 4WD, depending on battery capacity – will be balanced against the capital expenditure of a replacement vehicle and operating expenditure savings in fuel (between $5000 and $9000 per year, says Dietz) and the cost of charging.
Approximately 250,000 utes were imported to Australia in 2022. Roev is also eyeing other international markets south of the equator, such as South Africa.
“We’re hoping the kit is going to be reproducible enough that we can set up in other regions fairly quickly,” says Dietz.
The company won’t share details of the technology that may be dropped into utes, and it is working with a third-party engineering consultant to zero in on optimal solutions, with production expected in early 2024. Two vehicles are already on the road displaying Roev branding.
So far, prospective customers are favouring a 4WD configuration, with higher mileage and a larger battery than the cheaper 2WD option. It’s a preference that appears irrational to Roev, but Dietz says they’re learning a thing or two about the psychology of buyers.
While a pocket of drivers is hesitant about giving up on ICE vehicles, Dietz has also found many of them simply love their brands. For them, the electric vehicle experience involves a leap of faith, from levers and buttons to a touchscreen interface. One customer described it as favouring “sameyness” so when a driver jumps in a conversion he or she knows where everything is.
“That will alleviate some of that resistance to change,” says Dietz. “Then when they hit the accelerator, especially when going up a hill and there’s that instant torque, you move from somebody questioning it to it putting a smile on their face.
“As soon as they feel a Hilux with an EV engine in it, it gets across their face and they start getting giddy.”