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Bright Automotive to enter electric-car derby

Stealthy start-up is bringing the mantra of fuel efficiency to plug-in electric-vehicle design by focusing on lighter materials and aerodynamics.

Start-up Bright Automotive is designing a line of plug-in electric vehicles that get a 100 miles per gallon by combining a bag full of fuel-efficiency tricks with an electric motor.

The Anderson, Ind.-based company is planning on showing off a prototype vehicle in May at the Electric Vehicle Symposium in Norway, according to CEO John Waters. The company raised $17 million in series A funding at the end of last year and intends to secure more money later this year, he said.

About a year ago, Bright Automotive was spun out of sustainability and energy consulting firm Rocky Mountain Institute, bringing in Waters, who invented the battery pack for GM's EV1 electric vehicle, and employees from Alcoa, Duke Energy, Google.org, Johnson Controls, and the Turner Foundation

Bright Automotive

Bright Automotive is cagey about its product plans, except to say that it is building gas-electric vehicles in the light-duty category covering pick-up trucks, SUVs, and sedans. Its target is to release a vehicle with the equivalent of 100 miles per gallon in the fourth quarter of 2012, Waters said.

What sets the company apart from many other electric-vehicle makers is that its design team is able to start from scratch, according to Waters. That "clean-sheet" approach will let the company build a vehicle that is 60 percent to 65 percent the weight of competing vehicles. Designers plan to use alternative materials, such as aluminum and composites, and save weight by making components smaller and integrating subsystems.

"The auto industry has not changed a whole lot in the last 100 years. It's still heavily steel-based and based on the same welding techniques," Waters said. "When you look at starting over, it's a breath of fresh air to have some constraints removed."

Making vehicles lighter should not compromise safety, Waters added. "We'll be going after a five-star crash rating to take that issue on. (Safety) is much more about materials and design than about mass, as exemplified in the racing industry," he said.

The technique of "light weighting," combined with aerodynamics, is allowing Bright Automotive to use a smaller battery, which is normally a very expensive component of electric cars. GM executives, for example, have said that the high costs of introducing new technology means they expect to lose money on the Chevy Volt, its gas-electric car due out in late 2010.

Bright Automotive's design will allow it to use a battery that's smaller than the Volt battery and designed for a larger vehicle, Waters said. The company expects to use lithium ion batteries and make its own battery packs, he added. Vehicles will use regenerative braking to add charge to the battery.

Bright Automotive intends to make a vehicle that can go 30 miles on a full battery. For trips beyond that distance, an internal combustion engine, capable of getting 40 miles per gallon, will charge the battery. By contrast, Waters said that competing gas-electric vehicles will only be able to get 10 to 20 miles per gallon on their gas engines.

Because it's a combined gas-electric vehicle, Bright Automotive estimates that drivers will get 100 miles per gallon for 50 miles trips. Fuel efficiency improves when the battery is used more.

The road to passenger cars
To finance its operations and manufacturing, the company is looking to raise money by the middle of this year, Waters said. It is both exploring private equity and applying for a Department of Energy loan to promote auto battery manufacturing.

If it successful in raising capital, the plan is to start manufacturing at a rate of 30,000 cars in the first year and ramp up to 50,000 after that.

Waters hinted that the first vehicle from the company will not be a passenger sedan. The company has gotten interest from customers in specific markets. Introducing a car in particular niche, like the military or corporate fleets, can lead to more mainstream vehicles, he said.

"The Humvee gave the military exactly what it needed. Then we saw that vehicle morph into a consumer market play," he said, noting the same scenario for Jeeps.

Likewise, he said, the Tesla Roadster is an all-electric sports car but Tesla intends to eventually build a sedan with the same technology.

In addition to making its own vehicles, Bright Automotive is developing business in providing power electronics and electric-vehicle conversions.

One of the main challenges to electric-vehicle adoption is lowering the cost, which is why Bright Automotive has focused on working with a scaled-down battery.

"If you can get the battery to (an attractive) price point, then you have market demand," he said. "Shoving a bunch of batteries on a heavy frame means (it's) not affordable."