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Hijacked by Hybrids 

Who unplugged the electric car?

Thursday, May 13 2004
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The death of the battery-powered car has been proclaimed far and wide. President Bush tried to make it official last year when he announced that hydrogen would be the fuel of the future, and asked for $1.2 billion to force the issue. Major auto manufacturers have quietly dismantled their fledgling battery fleets even as they fall all over themselves to field hybrid-electric models, eager to duplicate Toyota’s runaway success with the Prius.

But here in Southern California, there are battery die-hards who haven’t yet heard the news. Two local true believers remain determined to put full-size electric vehicles onto the state’s freeways: Phoenix Motorcars of Ojai and AC Propulsion of San Dimas. Both have built impressive prototypes, but both also face formidable obstacles.

Phoenix’s prototype, with a 1937 Cabriolet hot-rod body, is straight out of a ZZ Top video. Phoenix’s owners, Dana Muscato and Dan Riegert, say that with volume production they could produce a car with a 100-plus-mile range at a cost competitive with an internal-combustion vehicle. In fact, they already have an order for 20 cars from Electricab, a Sacramento-based taxi company.

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AC Propulsion has a different goal. The company set its sights on top-end sports-car owners. Their tzero prototype has a custom sports-coupe body, and with electro-drive’s unbeatable torque it smoked a Ferrari, a Corvette and a Porsche in head-to-head races in 2000. Anticipating a strong demand, AC Propulsion began taking deposits on production models.

Despite such promising starts, however, both enterprises have ground to a halt. AC Propulsion, the more established of the two companies, has retreated to its staple of making and selling electro-drive components. Phoenix’s owners spend their time soliciting investors.

What happened? The answer is a tale of a technology whose time has either passed, has not yet come, or may become fatally ensnared in legal tangles, depending on whom you ask.

The chief knock on electric vehicles has always been that they don’t have enough range for the mass market. With the advent of lithium-ion batteries, the type used in cell phones and laptops, a battery pack with a 300-mile range is now a reality. Without mass-production economies of scale, though, cost estimates for such a battery run from $20,000 to $80,000. That was a major factor in AC Propulsion’s decision to go after higher-end customers rather than wait for the price to come down.

 

Once upon a time, the future of EVs seemed bright. Following California’s 1990 Zero-Emissions-Vehicle law, which mandated that by 2003, 10 percent of cars sold in the state would have to be emissions-free, the big three in Detroit and several foreign companies were all making battery-electric vehicles. Riegert and Muscato originally wanted to open an electric-car dealership in July of 2000, hoping to catch what they thought would be a wave of new cars coming on the market.

Then, the automakers sued, and the courts blocked implementation of the mandate. Finally, in 2003, California eased the restriction to allow gas vehicles modified to control emissions and gas-electric hybrids to count toward the no-emissions mandate. Tepid sales led major manufacturers to discontinue production after about 5,000 electrics hit the road. General Motors did lease about 1,000 of its battery-electric, the EV-1, but is scrapping them as the leases run out, over the objections of its fiercely loyal fans.

With Bush and the automakers looking elsewhere, investment in the technology for full-size battery cars evaporated. Of 35 different companies Riegert and Muscato viewed as potential suppliers for their dealership, none ever produced a single car. They realized that if they wanted to sell electric cars, they would have to produce them as well.

Then, hybrid vehicles came onto the scene. Using a gas engine to either charge the battery, run the electric drive motor, or both, depending on the configuration, hybrids have the range of a traditional car but also many of the advantages of an electric. The fact that they can use a smaller gas engine and run it at a constant speed means they boast excellent fuel economy — the 2005 Toyota Prius, for example, gets a combined 58 miles per gallon.

Electric purists, however, argue that the hybrid is an imperfect compromise at best.

“They still emit pollutants,” says Leni Goldberg, president of the Electric Vehicle Association of Southern California. “You still have to find the oil, pump it out of the ground, refine it, all of which is destructive.”

Some electric-vehicle fans are more forgiving of hybrids. Ed Kjaer, director of Alternative-Fuel Transportation for Southern California Edison, oversees the utility’s fleet of roughly 300 battery-electric vehicles, most of them Toyota RAV-4 EVs. The fleet is the product of the Energy Policy Act, a 1992 federal law that says 90 percent of an alternative-fuel provider’s fleet must be powered by alternative fuels. Kjaer drives one of the Toyotas to and from work every day, a trip of 150 miles, and loves it.

“We’ll run those vehicles as long as Toyota lets us keep them,” Kjaer says. Despite his affection for EVs, however, Kjaer thinks the hybrid is a logical next step. As the leases on his pure electrics run out, he anticipates replacing them with hybrids, once lawmakers approve a version of the act that would allow the switch.

Kjaer thinks the plug-in hybrid, which is currently being tested by DaimlerChrysler in Germany, will combine the best of both worlds. The plug-in, with a larger battery that could be charged directly at home, would be able to travel up to 40 miles on battery power alone and then switch to a gas engine as a hybrid would.

“The limitation of the [pure] EV is the size of the battery, the range,” Kjaer says. “Once that battery is exhausted, you have no other option but to charge. In the plug-in hybrid case, you always have another option.”

One thing unites all those involved with electric vehicles, and that is skepticism of the Bush administration’s move toward hydrogen.

“It’s an absolute fantasy,” says Goldberg, a retired electrical engineer. He says that even in best-case scenarios, hydrogen costs 2.5 times as much as gasoline.

Riegert and Muscato were undaunted by waning support for battery-electrics. Enthusiasts but not engineers, they had Steve Northrop, an automotive designer with a background in racing, design the vehicle platform using drive-train components from Enova Systems in Torrance. Only then did they go looking for a body. It was availability, not aesthetics, that led them to hot rods.

“Our idea was to build a battery-electric car from off-the-shelf parts,” says Riegert. “The kit-car industry had everything we needed.”

Whatever the motivation, the end result turns heads and gets props from passing bikers. The ride is comfortable and the cornering tight, thanks to the batteries between the frame rails.

The first two of the twenty 1937 Ford Phaeton bodies ordered by Electricab sit in Phoenix’s cramped shop, awaiting frames and drive trains that the company doesn’t have the money to build. According to Riegert, the main obstacle is a California law that makes it illegal to take a deposit of more than 1 percent of the retail value on a car that has not yet been built.

Riegert and Muscato have already sunk all their savings, about $400,000 each, into the company. They have attracted about $200,000 in outside investment, but they estimate they’ll need another $500,000 to begin production in earnest. “It’s awfully hard to get people interested in a start-up,” Riegert explains. The pair tried to interest venture-capital firms in the enterprise but were turned down — 75 times.

AC Propulsion has a more solid foundation. The company was founded in 1992 by Alan Cocconi, an automotive engineer who had previously created the General Motors prototype that would evolve into the EV-1. The company keeps 15 to 30 employees busy building electro-drive components for a variety of customers, but to pursue its goal of selling full vehicles, it, too, is looking for money, in its case a cool $2 million. Company president Tom Gage says AC Propulsion may have been a little hasty with its T-zero production plans.

“When we began with that project, I don’t think we realized the amount of expenses involved in building a vehicle from scratch,” Gage says. AC Propulsion is now looking at buying “gliders,” full vehicles minus the engine and drive train, from a major manufacturer for conversion to electro-drive.

Both Phoenix and AC Propulsion exhibit and demonstrate their vehicles regularly, and both still believe that success is just around the corner, despite the fact that the weight of public opinion seems to be working against them. As Kjaer puts it, “If you look at it dispassionately, the full-size battery EV isn’t a mass-market car.”

But Muscato and Riegert remain convinced that their Phoenix will rise from the ashes.

“People don’t understand that it has no choice,” Muscato says. “It may take a little longer, but we’ll do what it takes to make it work.”

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