Entrepreneurial Firms Drive Ahead In Development of the Electric Car

Companies, which have targeted niche markets for the cars, want to make them more affordable to consumers as federal law takes effect in 1996

THE S10 Chevy pickup doesn't exactly roar to life. More like a faint purr, actually, that's nearly drowned out by the seat-belt alarm. That's the first thing to get used to when driving an electric vehicle.

The pickup has been converted to electric power by U.S. Electricar. It is the Santa Rosa, Calif., company's second-generation vehicle. Powered by alternating-current technology, it can cruise a highway at up to 75 miles an hour and travel 50 to 90 miles before its batteries need recharging.

``In two years, we will have battery systems that will make these vehicles very competitive with gas-powered ones,'' says Ted Morgan, the company's founder.

From a technology standpoint, the electric car is coming out of its infancy.

U.S. Electricar's pickup is a good deal more advanced than a Chevrolet Blazer converted with the company's first-generation technology. On a small hill, the Blazer slowed to a crawl; the pickup is zippier. It cruises comfortably at 60 miles an hour, although turning onto a busy highway seems a little daunting. For the adventurous person who needs a second car for commuting to work or getting around town, an electric vehicle could fit the bill.

Companies all over the world are trying to make the technology accessible to the mainstream consumer. They could start with the price. The Electricar pickup costs about $29,000 - twice what the gas-powered version would.

Researchers are working on everything from improving electrical vehicles' battery life to reducing their weight. (Because they carry so many batteries, electric cars are significantly heavier than their gas-powered counterparts.) While the established auto companies are taking a cautious approach, small, entrepreneurial firms such as U.S. Electricar are pushing ahead.

``Most of the work is being done by small companies,'' says Jacob Jorne, an advanced-battery researcher at the University of Rochester in Rochester, N.Y.

``You're getting a lot more innovation out of the small companies,'' adds Bill Van Amburg, communications director for CALSTART, a California-based consortium of public and private entities trying to start an advanced transportation industry in the region. ``They're more motivated. They see a chance to make money off a much smaller sales base than the big guys do.''

The entrepreneurs are notching industry firsts. In the American Tour de Sol in May, a New York to Philadelphia race for solar- and electric-powered vehicles, a converted Geo Metro from a small company called Solectria Inc. ran a record 214 miles on a single charge. The car's batteries were built by another small company, Ovonic Battery of Troy, Mich.

For the moment, electric-car companies are targeting niche markets. U.S. Electricar, for example, is focused on fleet sales. In some ways, fleet managers are easier to sell to because they buy dozens of the exact same vehicle. Another incentive is that federal law requires that 10 percent of fleet managers' purchases be alternative-powered vehicles by 1996.

The federal law takes effect two years before California's mandate kicks in, which requires that low-emission cars make up at least 2 percent of automakers' sales in California. There's also up to $4,000 available in federal tax credits for electric-vehicle sales.

Utilities, eager to boost sales of electricity, are creating programs to buy electric vehicles for their own fleets.

``By concentrating on the existing market, we can address it properly,'' says Carl Perry, U.S. Electricar's executive vice president. ``If we do 5,000 to 7,000 vehicles a year, we are a very, very successful company.'' The company is increasing its plant capacity to be able to build more than 3,000 cars next year.

This aggressive push has not yet steered the company into the black. Last year, the company had sales between $1 million and $2 million. This year's total should jump to roughly $15 million. Mr. Perry projects that next year's sales will reach $60 million or more.

Interest in electric vehicles is growing, in part because the federal and California mandates become stiffer as time goes on.

``We feel the growth,'' says Mr. Van Amburg. In 1992, the consortium started with some 40 participants. Today, it has well over 85 and a network of another 40 companies in California. Similar consortia have been started in the Northeast and Southeast.

Consumer interest also appears high. On June 23, General Motors kicked off its demonstration program in which 1,000 consumers around the country test-drive GM's electric-powered car, the Impact. Eighty of the drivers were slated to come from the Los Angeles region. The company's regional hot line got some 10,000 calls over a two-month period.

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