Editorial: Is Malcolm Bricklin's vision clear?

Before proceeding with this post you might want to peruse the interview I did with Malcolm Bricklin at the Detroit Auto Show. Are you ready? Good, let's proceed. First let me say I like the premise of Bricklin's idea. There are plenty of little entrepreneurs out their with ideas to build EVs and PHEVs. But as I've discussed here on numerous occasions, the auto industry is one of the most capital intensive in the world. There are a lot of really great cars on the road today that have set an extraordinarily high standard for safety (this in large part due to regulation), reliability, durability and customer service. Sure cars have plenty of flaws but truthfully how many high-tech devices produced by the mavens of Silicon Valley can you point to that regularly run for 15-20 years in all kinds of operating conditions?

Although there are those of you who are willing to sacrifice a lot for environmentally-friendly transportation, the reality is that most people in developed auto markets are not. In the U.S. market buyers have a plethora of choices and although newcomers have jumped into the market at various times over the years, the ones that just aimed for the low end of the market have typically fallen by the wayside such as Daihatsu and of course perhaps the most infamous example, Yugo.

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When most people buy a new car, they expect it to simply work. They don't want any weird glitches or hiccups. People are willing to tolerate computers or MP3 players that randomly shut-down on occasion. An iPod that has a battery lose half if its charge capacity after year is annoying but passable. A car that randomly reboots or only goes half as far on a charge after 1-2 years simply not acceptable. With an internal combustion engine car, it will typically go almost as far after 100,000 miles as it does when it's new and it still only takes 5-10 minutes to fill the tank. If you have a plug-in vehicle that takes anywhere from 4-8 hours to charge and but only gets half the range after a few years people won't be happy, especially when they realize how much a new battery costs.

Bricklin's plan to make the power-train and energy storage systems for hybrid and electric cars available to other manufacturers has the potential to reduce the cost of these components. Unfortunately that is only a part of the solution. No matter how good those components may be, they must be integrated into a complete vehicle. That's actually the most difficult part of the development process. Insuring that regenerative and friction braking are blended seamlessly is not a trivial task. Drivers expect to press the brake pedal and get a consistent relationship between the pedal apply force and the vehicle deceleration. If the deceleration changes or is different, drivers will get upset and the likelihood of an accident is increased.

It's not clear at this time if Bricklin's plans include engineering support to manufacturers that join his program. Distribution and service are part of the plan. If the vehicles are not properly integrated and tested, the potential warranty costs and customer dissatisfaction could quickly sink the whole program just as it did with Yugo. The potential upside of this whole plan is huge for the electric car. Unfortunately the business risk and the likelihood of failure is even larger. I'd love to see this plan succeed and we'll be watching it carefully over the next few years. The odds are against it.

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