Zenn plans to be the 'Intel Inside' of electric cars

Electric automaker tells investors that EEStor will come through on battery promises, mentions talks with partner for Zennergy drivetrain.

Candace Lombardi
In a software-driven world, it's easy to forget about the nuts and bolts. Whether it's cars, robots, personal gadgetry or industrial machines, Candace Lombardi examines the moving parts that keep our world rotating. A journalist who divides her time between the United States and the United Kingdom, Lombardi has written about technology for the sites of The New York Times, CNET, USA Today, MSN, ZDNet, Silicon.com, and GameSpot. She is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not a current employee of CNET.
Candace Lombardi
3 min read

Updated at 8:12 a.m. PDT March 30 with details on the CityZenn and Zennergy prototypes from Zenn Motor.

Zenn Motor is expanding its lineup to include a highway-legal electric car and an all-electric drivetrain for other automakers, the company announced Thursday.

Zenn (for "zero emission no noise") has been working on these particular products for some time.

The ZENN '08 model in blue shadow. Zenn Motor

In 2007, the company offered the public a low-speed Zenn carwith a range of 35 miles per charge that was limited to the 25mph legal limit for cars in a certain class. In 2008, it improved its all-electric car by replacing the DC motor with an AC motor that had a range of 40 to 50 miles. The car still wasn't highway-legal, so it was geared toward clients such as universities, military bases, and retirement communities in need of something to shuttle people around the grounds.

Now the Toronto-based company says that the CityZenn all-electric, highway-legal car, which was thought to be in the offing for 2009, should be available for retail in 2010.

More interesting, it's promised to offer an all-electric drivetrain to be used in other cars with co-branding. It's called the Zennergy drivetrain and includes a unique power source from Texas-based company EEStor.

Zenn's partner EEStor has been developing a new type of ultra-capacitor for electricity storage for years. Both companies claim the system can deliver more power and offer a longer range than the typical lithium-ion battery used in electric cars.

People have been skeptical about this "super battery" that EEStor refers to as Electrical Energy Storage Units' (EESUs) and has been promising to Zenn, to GM for its Volt, and to Lockheed Martin.

In April 2007 Zenn spent about $2.5 million for a 3.8 percent share in EEStor, and as an investor has the right to obtain the first units it produces. In 2008, Zenn told CNET it expected prototypes of the EESUs to be sent over to them by the end of the year.

The company's latest statements on the matter indicate that Zenn has its prototypes but is waiting for EEStor to complete a "full-scale production facility" in order to make its product commercially scalable.

Specifically, Zenn has its part of the prototypes for both the CityZenn and Zennergy drivetrain complete, but not the all-important power source component from EEStor, according to Catherine Scrimgeour, public-affairs specialist at Zenn.

"While we do have prototypes of the platform for the CityZenn, we do not yet have the component that is EEStor's Electrical Energy Storage Units--the EESUs. That tech is still in development," said Scrimgeour.

"We do have the Zennergy drivetrain prototype, and the drive train would normally include the power source, but we don't have that component yet. So to be fair, I guess you could say we don't have the whole drivetrain done yet," she said.

In its annual shareholders meeting on March 25, which was broadcast to the public as a podcast, Zenn discussed a stock option plan and shareholders' rights plan. It didn't offer much information on how things are actually going with the EEStor part of the project other than to say it's in talks with a partner that it will announce soon. Rick McGraw, Zenn's chairman, asked investors to trust him that an excellent management team has the situation in hand. Said McGraw:

Many of this (projects') initiatives, while considerably advanced, are not 100 percent complete, and as such, certain details cannot yet be fully disclosed to you and other interested stakeholders without potentially compromising (the project). I know there's a thirst for (an) update, but just recognize that their are limits to what we can say and discuss for a whole bunch of reasons.

Zenn CEO Ian Clifford offered a true-believer-style pep talk:

With the commercialization of EEStor's game-changing electronic-storage technology, Zenn will take the central role in enabling electric (driving) around the world with a business model that can best be described as an Intel Inside energy solution custom-tailored to work with any and all (original equipment manufacturer) platforms.

We'll partner with the automotive industry and governments around the world to ensure that electric vehicles are available to all consumers, both as new, highly capable vehicles and conversions of existing internal combustion vehicles to Zennergy drive.