Chicago sues electric truck maker Motiv, says $1.3M electric garbage truck has been a lemon

By Jonathan Bilyk | Mar 20, 2019

Less than five years since trumpeting its purchase of “North America’s first all-electric” garbage truck, the city of Chicago has taken that truck’s manufacturer to court, alleging the truck has been a lemon.

Last month, lawyers for City Hall filed suit in Cook County Circuit Court against Motiv Power Systems Inc., asking the court order Motiv to pay the city back more than $1.3 million for the electric refuse truck (ERT), which the complaint asserts has been out of service for 1,096 days – or a cumulative three years – since the city took possession of the vehicle in 2014.

The city asserts the vehicle has not been in service since April 2018, and, as of Feb. 14, 2019, “Motiv has failed to provide the City with a functioning ERT.”

Motiv on March 15 moved to transfer the case to federal court in Chicago.

The issue at the heart of the lawsuit dates back to 2012, four years after the city of Chicago launched its “Chicago Climate Action Plan” (CCAP). That plan, which the city in its legal filing called “a comprehensive and detailed strategy to help lower green-house gas emissions and address climate change,” included a provision calling on city officials to “introduce both all-electric and hybrid garbage trucks into the City’s fleet” and reduce “reliance on diesel-driven trucks and petroleum use.”

In its complaint, the city says it secured a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy “to partially fund its acquisition of hybrid and electric fleet vehicles, including electric refuse trucks.”

In 2012, the city entered into a contract with Motiv, a company based in California’s San Francisco bay area, which had begun production three years earlier on its electric commercial vehicles.

According to Motiv’s website, company produces buses, step vans, work trucks, box trucks and other “medium-duty body” commercial vehicles powered by an all-electric powered chassis.

The website does not advertise electric refuse trucks.

According to the city’s complaint, the city’s contract with Motiv required the company to produce all ordered ERTs within 270 days of the order, and then to maintain the vehicles “in the most expedient method available.”

In 2014, the city took delivery of the vehicle, for which it paid more than $1.3 million.

In a press release issued in September 2014, David Reynolds, then serving as the city’s Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Fleet and Facility Management, said Chicago was “proud to be home to North America’s first all-electric refuse and recycling truck, and we look forward to examining how this truck can boost efficiency, reduce emissions and save tax payer dollars in the future.”

According to the press release, that ERT was to be “one of an estimated 20 that could be built within the exclusive 5-year purchase order.”

In the release, Motiv founder and CEO Jim Castelaz said Motiv “leapt at the chance to use (its electric powered chassis system) on a significantly larger truck,”

According to the complaint and the 2014 release, the city required Motiv to deliver a truck which “must meet the demanding requirements placed on all of its garbage trucks,” including a 60-mile range, a 9-ton payload capacity and the ability to operate in temperatures from 120 degrees Fahrenheit to 30 degrees below zero.

However, since taking possession of the vehicle, the lawsuit asserts the vehicle has been persistently shut down for repairs, twice for more than 300 days at a time, including since April 2018.

“Since Jan. 6, 2014, the ERT has experienced mechanical and software problems that regularly prevented the City from using the vehicle altogether,” the city’s complaint asserts. “Because the ERT has experienced chronic mechanical and/or software problems and/or has been out for repair work by Motiv, the City has been deprived, and continues to be deprived, of the use of the ERT for over half of the time since the City purchased the ERT.”

The city has asked the court to order Motiv to repay its purchase price and other amounts yet to be determined, including “the costs incurred by the City during each day that the ERT was inoperable” and attorney fees.

In a statement issued in response to questions from the Cook County Record, Motiv said: "As a matter of policy, we do not comment on ongoing litigation. Motiv Power Systems will vigorously defend our position and feel confident the facts will show the city of Chicago’s position is unfounded."

The city is represented in the action by attorneys from its Department of Law.

Motiv is represented in the action by attorneys Michael J. Summerhill and John T. Shapiro, of the firm of Freeborn & Peters LLC, of Chicago.

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Organizations in this Story

Circuit Court of Cook County City of Chicago Freeborn & Peters John T. Shapiro Motiv Power Systems U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois

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