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Small Automakers Take Big Electric Leap

The newest vehicle from Coda Automotive, a California-based electric car and battery company.
The newest vehicle from Coda Automotive, a California-based electric car and battery company. (Coda Automotive)

For decades in the auto industry, bigger was better. Size brought economies of scale from the design studio to the factory floor to the dealership. Indeed, Fiat chief executive Sergio Marchionne has been frantically trying to acquire other car companies, because he believes that the future of the industry will lie in the hands of just six global giants.

But Czinger is taking the opposite approach. "We have a one-guy bureaucracy," Czinger said. "Me."

Bright Ideas

Bright Automotive is another company trying to get a foothold. Launched by people at the Rocky Mountain Institute, idealistic home to well-known energy guru Amory Lovins, Bright Automotive hopes to market a hybrid-electric van that would get six to eight times the mileage current fleet vans get.

It wants to start production in 2012 and sell 50,000 vans in 2013. Using other companies' components and its own design, Bright says it can make vans that would travel about 30 miles on a battery and as much as 400 miles on a charge and a tank of fuel.

Based in Anderson, Ind., it has collected about $20 million in support from companies like Google, Alcoa and Duke Energy. "We have hundreds of trucks," said Duke Energy spokesman Tom Williams. "We could buy as many as 200 off the bat."

But Bright Automotive, which currently employs more than 30 people, needs much more and is seeking about $450 million in loans from the Energy Department authorized by the 2007 energy bill. If the money comes through, Bright wants to ramp up to a thousand people and will employ many more at supplier companies.

Many of Bright's engineers and executives are bruised veterans of the electric car business. Bright chief executive John E. Waters was the battery pack engineer for GM's EV1, an electric vehicle briefly produced in the 1990s that inspired a loyal band of followers but was eliminated by the company. Waters is proud of the vehicle and said "my phone never rang from one customer complaining about the range or performance of the battery." The disappointment at EV1's cancellation, he said, still stings. "Those of us who lived through that are cautious about experiencing that again."

Since leaving GM, Waters has worked on lithium ion battery technology at auto parts maker Delphi and EnerDel. He developed the lithium ion battery system used in the Segway Human Transporter.

Waters says that Bright's small size is an advantage, not a handicap. He says most major auto companies have relatively small teams of 200 or so people designing cars with parts from disparate suppliers.

In Bright's case, its car's interior will be made by Johnson Controls from recyclable materials. Alcoa will provide aluminum for the rust-free exterior. Door handles and brakes will come from the major manufacturers. Bosch will provide the rear axle. Several companies are hoping to make the batteries.

Keller says Bright's business model has a better chance of success because it is planning to sell to big companies with big fleets, most of them leased. For those companies, buying an electric van is a matter of dollars and cents. And they are easier to service.

Waters adds that once a car battery needs replacing, it can still be used by utilities for the storage of renewable electricity, thus giving the used batteries some value.

"This is a mission-based enterprise that makes environmental sense as well as economic sense," Waters said.

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