Echo AutomotiveBack in the 70’s when America was suffering through long lines at the gas station and exploding fuel prices, you could go out and buy an bolt-on transmission overdrive unit that would give you better fuel economy. Things have changed a bit today, with 5 speed automatic transmissions being the norm, but large commercial vans are still gas hogs that suck money out of the owner’s wallet.

Enter Echo Automotive, based in Scottsdale Arizona. It is offering operators of traditional Ford E-150 and Chevy Express vans a bolt-on plug in hybrid system that can boost their fuel economy by up to 50%. Echo says its system will save about $3000 in fuel costs for every 30,000 miles driven and it consists of an induction motor bolted into the drivetrain after the transmission. A 9.4 kilowatt lithium ion battery, charger, controller and inverter are all slipped into the spare tire well. Just bolt it in, charge it up and go!

If the useful life of  a commercial van is 10 years, the Echo system can put $30,000 or more back into the owner’s pocket during that time, more than paying for the cost of the system. And when the vehicle is ready to be retired from service, the system can be unbolted and transferred to a new vehicle, keeping the cycle of savings going. That’s an advantage over buying plug-in hybrid trucks from VIA Motors, new home for automotive superstar Bob Lutz. Although the VIA trucks offer higher performance, they are also considerably more expensive, with a starting price around $80,000.

Echo’s chairman, Jason Plotke, says that his system is a mild hybrid similar to that used by GM with its eAssist setup, or Honda’s Integrated Motor Assist system. It uses regenerative braking to help recharge the battery and offers a data analysis function to help fleet managers figure out how to save the most fuel. It’s also remarkably similar to a system built by Massachusetts-based XL Hybrids.

A few years ago, customers were shelling out thousands of dollars on built-in navigation systems. But when the car got sold, the nav system went with it. Now people just use their smartphones or plug-in GPS devices to get where they’re going. Could this bolt-on hybrid technology be the next step in reducing fuel usage?