The electric vehicle (and challenging Detroit by building a specialty vehicle company) has always been an alluring idea - and despite Detroit spending massive amounts of money on unsuccessful or marginal launches a decade ago (including GM's EV1, Toyota's RAV4 EV and Ford's Think), the dream does not die easily.
A whole new crop of startups are busy living that dream, especially in Silicon Valley - and tons of money is flowing in to fund them.
EVs, Plug-in hybrids and next generation batteries and electric drive systems are exciting Silicon Valley to invest - and 2007 and 2008 are targeted as breakout years. Here's a taste.
AC Propulsion - 15 year old startup developing an all-electric drive train technology, currently providing all electric conversions of Toyota Scions using Li Ion batteries. Their technology is in the Wrightspeed prototypes. I had a chance to drive one of their vehicles not too long ago on the hills of San Francisco - delightfully fun. For $55K (you provide the car) you can get one now.
Wrightspeed - Another Silicon Valley startup - from their website "The X1 prototype is just the beginning. It meets its design specs of 0-60 in 3 seconds, 170 mpg equivalent; and at 1536 lbs, is only 36 lbs over the design target of 1500."
Visionary Vehicles - (Malcom Brickland the back for another try after the the Bricklin SV-1 of 30 years ago) - the story here is low cost (Plug-ins are electric hybrids with extra batteries that you can charge from a wall socket device.)
Tesla Motors - The highflying Silicon Valley electric car startup is making lots of headlines and has raised oodles of money (the Chairman Elon Musk is another one of the Greentech bloggers so don't take my word for it). The target car is a $92K all electric two seat roadster. As of a few days ago, Tesla is in the battery business as well, having announced a $43 mm deal with Think to sell lithium ion batteries. They were targeting '07 for product deliveries. I'm not sure what the latest is.
Phoenix Motor Cars - Canadian based, building EV fleet cars, with a Altairnano battery and UQM propulsion system. Targeting all electric trucks for the fleet market. Targeted early releases in late '07/'08.
So, regardless of where you come down on electric vehicles - it is pretty clear the independents are looking to challenge Detroit - banking on recent advances in battery technology and the rush for plug-in hybrids to let them make a dent in a market that has proven an unbelievably tough nut to crack. One of my colleagues was involved with Zebra Motors 10 years ago - another San Francisco Bay Area EV sports car startup that made cool prototypes but never got off the ground. Perhaps it was just too early.
Are electric vehicles really back? That's a hard prediction to make. EV technology has proven to be brutally hard over the years to get right. And even if you can, challenging Detroit and Japanese automakers has not exactly been a money making strategy either. The car business is hard. Yes, battery technology has improved and costs have come down - but just how much? Yes, plug-in hybrids offer a new way to get EV technology into fleets and mainstream (I'm a very big fan) - but cost is still a factor. And while Silicon Valley has lots of money to invest - so do the major automakers. When it comes to EITHER vehicles or EVs, $100 million in capital is not a marker of success, it's the ante up to play the game.
It's all exciting to watch in any case.