The advent of plug-in hybrids leads to an obvious question: If a mostly electric car is possible, why not dispense with internal combustion altogether and go completely electric? Wouldn't such a car—with only one relatively simple drivetrain and a single motor— be both cheaper and cleaner? The short answer is "yes, but." Yes, a world of mostly electric cars powered by solar- and wind-generated electricity would be a much better place, for a variety of obvious reasons. But based on the difficulties carmakers are having with their plug-in hybrid introductions, a viable all- electric car seems to be at least several years away. But, you wouldn 't know it from all the activity in this space. In late 2007, I interviewed Michael Potts, CEO of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a Colorado-based green think tank, for a magazine article. Toward the end, I asked him if there was anything that had him especially excited, and he responded,
Right now this is the first time since the 1930s that there are real plausible new car companies going out and raising money, because the technologies available to transportation are just so groundbreaking. A lot of investors are speculating that the old-line companies are just too stuck in their ways. Right now there are six or seven electric car start-ups that are getting funding. All have interesting niches and very innovative technologies, in an industry that's been dominated for years by huge multinationals. Some big money is backing them, and there will be a couple of IPOs within eighteen months.
Now that's cool. Start-ups bringing out slick new electric cars that challenge the conventional wisdom of internal combustion, mile-long assembly lines, and dealership networks. No doubt most, if not all, of these guys will lose out to Toyota and BMW, but the fact that they're getting funded implies that some smart money sees a very big opening here, both in terms of business model and technology. So maybe they won't all fail, and among the DeLoreans and Tuckers is a future Porsche. Here are a few of the more interesting start-ups, as of early 2008:
Tesla Motors. The grizzled veteran of this bunch, Tesla Motors was founded in 2003 and, by late 2007, had raised $105 million from mainstream venture capital firms and tech entrepreneurs like PayPal co-founder Elon Musk (who became the company's chairman) and former eBay president Jeff Skoll. Instead of following the Japanese car-maker example of starting at the low end of the market and working its way up, Tesla is emulating the early introduction of cell phones and microwave ovens by building an expensive piece of must-own hardware aimed at people with big bucks and a taste for new toys. Its $109,000 Tesla Roadster is a very fast, very slick, two-seater. With a carbon fiber body and a top speed of 130 miles per hour, it - s a sports car first; the fact that it's electric is icing on the cake. As such, it has star power. George Clooney and Matt Damon reportedly put down deposits in 2007, and a lot of other big names will no doubt follow if the car lives up to expectations.
Addressing the Achilles - heel of today- electric cars— heavy batteries that nevertheless deliver inadequate power and range—Tesla bundled 6,831 lithium-ion cells, each about the size of a AA battery, into a 950-pound pack that it claims delivers a range of 200 miles and takes only four hours to recharge.(Again, the next chapter covers battery tech.)The initial response was so positive that Tesla announced plans to start selling the battery packs to other carmakers. But, not surprisingly, the trip from concept to commercial launch has been rocky. In August 2006, the Roadster flunked a 30-mile-per-hour side-impact crash test, necessitating design changes. In September 2007, Tesla cancelled plans to sell its battery pack and pushed back its production schedule into 2008. In December 2007, it announced that because suppliers had failed to deliver the "dual-speed" transmission that would give the Roadster the promised 0- to-60 in four seconds acceleration, the early version won - t be that fast. Fixing the transmission will cost another $40 million. Still, look for considerable buzz to accompany the launch of the upgraded Roadster when and if the real transmission is ready in 2009.
Phoenix Motorcars. California-based Phoenix Motorcars is acting as general contractor for a line of electric cars, beginning with a small SUV. It starts with a "glider," or complete vehicle minus the powertrain and fuel system, from a Korean carmaker. Then it buys power plants and battery packs from outside suppliers and contracts with an engineering shop to turn the parts into a working vehicle. The result is an attractive little SUV/pickup with moderate acceleration, a top speed of 100 miles per hour, and a range of 130 miles. One interesting twist is the battery pack, from Reno, Nevada, start-up Altairnano, which can charge in 10 minutes with a high-power commercial rapid charger. This is irrelevant for homeowners but intriguing to large companies that operate vehicle fleets and can afford the specialized hookups. One cab company is said to have ordered 20, while California utility Pacific Gas & Electric has ordered 200. Here again, the delivery schedule has been bumped back from late 2007 to 2009 because of delays in getting the cars through California's air-quality certification process.
Think Electric. Back in 1999, Ford bought a Norwegian electric car start-up called Pivco, renamed it Think Nordic, and pumped $150 million into it in an attempt to build a viable electric car. Like all previous electric vehicles, this one failed. Enter Jan Olaf Willums, a venture capitalist in search of new frontiers who, for $15 million, bought Think's assets, including the design for its next car, called the City. Under
Willums, Think Electric's car and its business model are both radical departures. Instead of building cars and stocking showrooms, Think will build cars to order. Instead of operating a single huge assembly line, it will place a number of small factories near target markets, where technicians will build Citys from prefab parts. Every City will be Internet and Wi-Fi enabled, allowing drivers to access the Internet—and to communicate back and forth with the car itself. A City will e- mail its owner, for instance, when its battery is running low. Because the battery is the most expensive part of an electric car, Think will sell the car but lease the battery. Take the battery out of the equation, and the car might go for as little as $17,000, with a "mobility fee" of $100 to $200 per month that might also include services such as insurance and wireless Internet access. Production of Citys began in Norway in late 2007, and testing was under way in early 2008. A first-year production run of 7,000 was planned.
Zero Motorcycles. California-based Zero is bringing out a line of battery-powered motorcycles that it says are high performance and price competitive. The first model, Zero X, is a $7,500 dirt bike that goes 40 miles on a charge. Next will come bigger street bikes. Because they're electric, Zeros are quiet, which is a big plus from a lot of different angles. As one reviewer noted, the same technology applied to snowmobiles would eliminate the controversy of those vehicles in national parks. But silence has one amusing drawback: Early test riders tended to get off and walk away without turning the engine off. In response, Zero added a safety bracelet that attaches to the bike and cuts off the engine when removed. According to the company, the first run of Zero X bikes sold out in early 2008.
ZENN Motor. Toronto, Canada-based ZENN (which stands for "zero emissions, no noise") has been selling its $15,000 ZENN coupes in the United States since 2006 and has a network of dealers already set up. To call this a "car" might be stretching it, though. With a top speed of 26 miles per hour, it's strictly for tooling around the neighborhood. But for some that 's apparently enough, and in any event, ZENN intends to power future models with advanced
"ultracapacitor" batteries (see Chapter 8) that will give them a bit more pop.
Project Better Place. Now envision a world populated by electric cars gliding silently around town, running low on juice and looking for a plug, much the same way that today- drivers seek out gas stations. There' s a market here, but not necessarily for plugs, since recharging a battery takes an unaccept-ably long time. What if instead of charging them, tomorrow's "filling" stations simply replace a car - batteries? You pull in, they pop the hood, swap your old batteries for newly charged batteries, and send you on your way. That' s the idea behind Project Better Place, a California start-up founded by former SAP Software executive Shai Agassi. Treating the battery like gasoline or oil makes the car cheaper—since batteries are a big part of the initial sticker price—and solves the slow charge problem. By early 2008, Agassi had raised $230 million and was planning a gradual rollout.
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Hybrid Cars! Man! Is that a HOT topic right now! There are some good reasons why hybrids are so hot. If you’ve pulled your present car or SUV or truck up next to a gas pumpand inserted the nozzle, you know exactly what I mean! I written this book to give you some basic information on some things<br />you may have been wondering about.