Green

Smith Electric, Proton Power join forces for hydrogen fuel-cell fleets

Smith Electric Vehicles, better known in the U.K., has failed to inspire much interest. Mostly because its flagship product, the “Newton,” is a fleet delivery truck with a 100-mile driving range and top speed of 50 miles per hour. With competitors exceeding both metrics, it seems to stand little chance in the global market. But a new deal with hydrogen fuel cell maker Proton Power Systems could change everything.

Today, the two companies announced they have signed a memorandum of Understanding — an agreement to collaborate on a new battery-powered vehicle using Proton Power’s fuel cell technology to substantially extend the range of Smith’s previous models to nearly 200 miles. This could make Smith a formidable competitor in Europe, where it plans to continue targeting commercial and fleet clients (especially in Germany where Proton in based) before making the jump to North America.

Right now, Smith’s light-duty electric vans are being used by familiar British brands like Sainsbury’s, Scottish & Southern Energy and Royal Mail. Production of a vehicle that can travel faster and farther should help the company bag even more big-name clients. And this might not be as far away as one might think. Proton and Smith say the first of the new vehicles should roll off the assembly line by the end of this year. A prototype will be showcased at the Hanover Fair in April.

It will be interesting to see how much of Smith’s focus is shifted to a hydrogen fuel-cell strategy. At the end of December, it inked a $1.4 million supply deal with advanced battery maker Valence Technologies to put batteries in its Newton delivery trucks and other plug-in electric offerings. When we reported on the contract, it seemed to be the only thing Valence had going for it as it struggled to stay afloat amid the likes of A123Systems, Johnson Controls-Saft and Panasonic. If Smith sees better results with Proton Power, Valence could be in real trouble.

As for Proton, co-developing smaller fleet vehicles is just one area being tapped. It is also looking into installing fuel cells in buses for municipalities and forklift trucks for industrial clients.