Plug-in hybrid gets 100 mpg for first 50 miles

Indiana-based company unveils light-use hybrid EV with 30-mile all-electric start option.

The Idea is a light-use plug-in electric hybrid intended for commercial fleets. Bright Automotive

Start-up Bright Automotive unveiled a light-use vehicle on Capitol Hill on Tuesday that gets 100 mpg for its first 50 miles.

The Idea, as the plug-in hybrid utility vehicle is called, uses battery power almost exclusively for the first 30 miles when starting with a fully charged battery. It then moves to the electric with gas supplement system found on any typical hybrid vehicle.

Because of this 30-mile electric start, Bright Automotive estimates that in a 50-mile drive the Idea consumes half a gallon of gas, getting it roughly the equivalent of 100 mpg. On a total drive of 70 miles, the Idea uses about one gallon of gas, giving the car "a mileage equivalent of 70 mpg."

Bright Automotive openly clarifies that their mileage count includes that 30-mile electric head start. Given the vehicle's target audience, the odd assessment of what would otherwise amount to a 40 mpg plug-in hybrid might be fair.

The Idea uses low-rolling resistance tires and is built from lightweight materials consisting of a high-tech aluminum from Alcoa and advanced composites to contribute to the vehicle's fuel efficiency. It has a one-ton cargo capacity and a passenger seat that can convert into a mobile office.

In other words, the Idea is not a highway car intended for the masses, but a light-use truck for commercial and military utility fleets. Utility trucks don't typically travel long distances and are often returned to a garage where the vehicle could be fully charged.

The Indiana-based company has applied for $450 million in federal loans from the Department of Energy to mass-produce the plug-in vehicle.

The U.S. government itself is not just a potential lender, but also a potential customer. Last January, the Army announced plans to replace up to 28,000 gas-powered vehicles with light-use EVs in the coming years. Global Electric Motorcar, a division of Chrysler, was the first manufacturer to win a contract for the U.S. Army initiative, and would be an obvious competitor for Bright Automotive if it gets up and running.

Granted the federal loan money, Bright Automotive says it could be in production by 2012 and could be mass-producing 50,000 vehicles a year starting in 2013. Including suppliers, the company would create more than 5,000 U.S. jobs, according to CEO John E. Waters.

In addition to the unveiling in Washington, D.C., Waters held a telephone press conference.

While he was asked several times to elaborate, he would not give any hint at how much the Idea costs.

"If I give you a number, consumers will then look at it like a consumer vehicle and that's not the impression we want to give. Our commercial customers will lease them usually on a monthly basis," said Waters.

Waters did hint that Bright Automotive is looking into an adaptation for a highway legal version for consumers.

"We have designed the vehicle platform to be extremely flexible. We are analyzing it for markets that would include a common power train, and a common chassis for both domestic and international markets," he said.

While Bright Automotive's business plan is based on private capital, the requested loan money from the federal government would ramp up production, giving the company a better chance to survive against the automotive legacy companies, according to Waters.

"We are impatient. We know every day we wait is a day less we have the Idea on the roads, cleaning up American skies, and providing people with green transportation as we see the titans of the world advancing in the world of transportation," he said.

While the company may have only started in 2008, it's not exactly an outsider. Its partners, many of whom have said they are also interested in being fleet customers, include Alcoa, Cox Communications, and Frito Lay.

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