DETROIT – Michigan-based Protean Electric is nearing production launch of its innovative in-wheel electric motors for hybrids and electric vehicles, with China the primary market for the new technology, says Chairman and CEO Bob Purcell.

The in-wheel motors are designed to fit any vehicle with 18-in. or larger wheels, can be retrofitted into existing cars and trucks on the road and work with front-, rear- and all-wheel-drive platforms, Purcell says.

The motors can provide electric power directly to each wheel in conventional hybrids, plug-in hybrids and full battery-electric vehicles.

The first applications likely will be in light-commercial vehicles in China, Purcell tells WardsAuto here at the 2013 SAE World Congress, where Protean is exhibiting the technology.

Each in-wheel motor, privately held Protean’s sole product, delivers 75 kW (100 hp) of power and 735 lb.-ft. (1,000 Nm) of torque and weighs in at just 68 lbs. (31 kg).

The motors also offer superior regenerative braking capability, with the potential to recapture up to 85% of available kinetic energy. Protean says the system can improve fuel economy up to 30% in a hybrid application, depending on the size of the battery used.

The company says it has secured 27 patents for the technology and has another 84 pending.

The device is undergoing production-validation testing at Protean’s Farnham, U.K., engineering center and the upstart developer expects to begin prototype production this year at a low-volume plant in Liyang, China.

Job One is slated for next year, but Purcell declines to identify the customer.

“This isn’t PowerPoint engineering,” he says. “This is real hardware that can be used today.”

Protean has installed the technology in several test vehicles, including a Vauxhall Vivaro cargo van, the type of commercial vehicle Purcell says is a primary target for the technology in China.

Shuttle and executive vans used in China, such as office-equipped versions of the Chrysler Town & Country or Buick GL8 favored by bureaucrats, are another market targeted by Protean.

“This is what people there are breathing every day,” Purcell says, flashing a picture of smog in Beijing that he took on his smartphone. “China is almost the ideal scenario (as a market for Protean).

“Electric drive will come,” he adds. “It’s not nice to do, it is a necessity.”

Other vehicles in which Protean has tested its system include the Ford F-150 pickup, Guangzhou Trumchi sedan and Mercedes E-Class.

In some commercial-vehicle applications, a switch allows the driver to select either internal-combustion mode, all-electric mode or a combination of both. The trucks could run on electricity when navigating their short, stop-and-go routes in the city, for example, and switch to their IC engines for longer hauls, Purcell says.

Another application being tested uses the gasoline engine to drive the front wheels and the electric motors to power the rear wheels.

Range would depend on how much battery is on board, but in one LCV application using a 21-kWh pack, range is about 31-50 miles (50-80 km), says Ken Stewart, vice president-business development.

The target price is about $1,600 per motor, or about $3,200 for a 2-wheel application, not including the cost of the battery pack.

Protean isn’t interested in becoming a high-volume supplier of the in-wheel technology. Although it will produce in small quantities at its Liyang plant, it is looking to license the technology either directly to auto makers or to Tier 1 suppliers.

Protean is headquartered in Auburn Hills, MI, and is in the process of opening an office in Shanghai.

dzoia@wardsauto.com