In electric car stakes, it's Miles to go

Southern California company joins a host of start-ups hoping consumers will get a charge out of electric-powered sedans.

Miles Automotive will try to accomplish two feats with one car in 2008: bring an electric sedan to the market, and bring a car made in China to the U.S.

The Javlon, from Southern California's Miles Automotive, will go 120 miles before it needs a charge and will hit a top speed of 80 miles an hour, according to CEO Jeff Boyd. It will cost approximately $32,000, and its lithium ion battery will last more than 100,000 miles before it needs to be replaced.

The company hopes eventually to come out with other models that will accelerate faster and go farther on a single charge.

Although Miles is based in the U.S., the car will be assembled in China, and most of the key components, such as the battery, will come from there as well. The basic chassis of the Javlon, in fact, is already being used for a gas car by another company in China. (U.S. carmakers get parts from China but assemble them elsewhere, and Chinese companies do not import street cars in large numbers to the U.S.)

China isn't exactly identified with high-quality manufacturing these days, but Boyd and other executives assert that Chinese doesn't mean cheap or shoddy. The chassis was actually designed by Italian designer Pininfarina.

The battery also comes from a well-known vendor. "We're buying it from one of the premium battery manufacturers in China," he said.

Over the next three years, the world will get a chance to see if it's really ready to embrace electric cars. General Motors, Toyota, Honda and Ford all brought out electric vehicles in the 1990s--only to yank them off the market because of dismal sales. Some of the current crop of electric car designers and execs also assert that these early cars weren't very good.

Since then, better batteries, higher oil prices and global warming have brought the idea back into vogue. Tesla Motors will bring out a $98,000 sports car later this year.

Selling sedans
Meanwhile, a whole host of companies--including Think, Zap, Tesla and Phoenix Motorcars--hope to bring out sedans for the mainstream market. (Others, such as India's Reva, are aiming for the economy market, while Zero Motorcycles and Vectrix are selling electric two-wheelers.)

The sports cars are being sold on the basis of speed and acceleration, an advantage that comes from having an electric motor. Marketing sedans is a bit trickier. The sedans will range in price from $30,000 to $50,000, and most will only be able to go about 100 to 150 miles before needing a charge.

Will Americans pay that much for a car that might not get them away for a quick weekend trip without conking out? Nobody knows, but Boyd notes that most Americans commute only about 40 miles a day and that a lot of people have second cars they use only for commuting.

"We don't expect this to be most people's primary car," he said.

Charge time is another issue. The battery in the Javlon will take 8 to 10 hours to fully charge. That's significantly longer than the charge times touted by other manufacturers--the Tesla Roadster, which comes with a fairly large battery, charges in about 4 hours. Boyd says that customers will become acclimated to thinking about charging every time they park.

The Santa Monica company was founded by Miles Rubin, an executive-turned-entrepreneur and a philanthropist. About three years ago, he was at an automotive conference with now-Chief Marketing Officer David Hirsch. They listened to two engineers argue about the feasibility of hydrogen cars. One said hydrogen cars would hit in about 18 years.

"He turned to me and said '18 years? I'll be dead in 18 years. What can we do in 18 months?'" Hirsch recalled.

The company has already come out with low-speed vehicles that top out at 25 to 35 miles per hour. They are sold to college campuses, industrial sites and the military. The Department of Defense is replacing a number of conventional cars with low-speed vehicles. Retirement communities, which have seen a rash of accidents among their golf cart-commuting residents, are another target market.

The company has already come out with low-speed vehicles that top out at 25 to 35 miles an hour. They are sold for use on college campuses, industrial sites and military posts--the Department of Defense is replacing a number of conventional cars with low-speed vehicles. Retirement communities, which have seen a rash of accidents among their golf cart-commuting residents, are another target market.

"There are about 70,000 low-speed vehicles in the U.S. today," Boyd said.

To date, Rubin has put about $15 million to $20 million into the company. Venture capital firms have not invested in it.

The first prototypes are currently being finished in China, and Miles hopes to bring them to the U.S. for testing and to show potential dealers by September. The company will then begin the rigorous, and somewhat expensive, process of testing required by the U.S. government and the EU.

If all goes well, Miles will begin to sell cars in the fourth quarter of 2008. For the first year of production, it has set a goal of producing 18,000 cars, and for the second year, 38,000. An SUV-like car will follow, ideally, in 2010.

If electric cars are such a good idea, what will prevent the big companies from coming in and taking over? Size, says Boyd, who has owned and run several car dealerships. Unless big automakers believe they can sell 200,000 units of a new model, they won't make it, he said.

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