One potential design for the next-gen Th!nk City

"A small and humble beginning."

That was how Th!nk CEO Richard Canny described his company's proposed expansion to America. It certainly wasn't a big, flashy roll-out in Ann Arbor this morning, but Canny and Th!nk North America CTO Jim Lyons made the most of a drab conference room to sell the assembled journalists on the potential of this sub-$20,000 electric car (that price comes with a big qualifier) in the U.S. market.

One thing that both Canny and Lyons repeatedly mentioned was that electric cars don't need to be figured out; a lot of them just need to be built so that they're cheaper. Lyons said that most estimates put the near-future cost for battery manufacturing at $250-300 per kWh once economies of scale are ramped up. For Th!nk, which hopes to begin fleet operations in 2010, followed by a full retail launch in 2011, that means they can sell their car for under $20,000 and lease the battery to the user for $80-90 a month. "There is no technology risk left in electric vehicles," Canny said. "This is a technology that is here, it's stable, it's available. What it lacks is scale."

We've got all the details about Th!nk's expansion to America after the jump. You can also listen to the presentation here (57 min):

(You can also download the 79 MB audio MP3 file from here)

Th!nk started business 17 years ago (as Pivco Industries) and, in almost two decades, has sold "a few thousand vehicles." That includes the four years when Ford owned the brand from 1999-2003. The relationship between Ford and Th!nk continues to this day, with some Ford parts used in the City and licensing and royalty agreements in place between the companies. Th!nk also a relationship with PSA (more history on Th!nk here).

Today, Th!nk is a Norwegian company that has had it's share of recent troubles. Things are looking better for the company, but Canny said that Th!nk is "not out of the woods yet." Currently, the company is going through the Norwegian version of Chapter 11 and is looking for private financing in order to get production started again there. Before the financial troubles started last year, Th!nk produced and sold somewhere between 350 and 400 of second-generation City models in Norway. The Euro-spec model that was on hand in Ann Arbor today uses a 35 Kw motor that is capable of moving the City up to 62 mph. For the America market, Th!nk will likely use a 50 Kw motor to get 72 or so mph. Should the Ox concept ever arrive (they said it was still "a ways away"), look for an 80 Kw unit under the hood. As for batteries, the Th!nk's EL Drive uses one of three battery types, all of which are 18 kWh or more. Thanks to a battery pack that will probably be about 25 kWh, the U.S. City will qualify for the full $7,500 federal tax rebate.

Th!nk wants to come to the U.S. not only because of the potential for funding but also because they think the market is ready for an EV here. As we mentioned in our earlier post, Canny made clear that all these U.S. expansion plans are dependent on Th!nk NA actually getting the DOE loan it will apply for on March 31. "If the U.S. wants to be a leader in lithium ion battery production, you've got to have some cars to put them into. Some of those cars would come from the domestic OEMs, but if you look at Th!nk, we're the first people out there buying lithium batteries at any kind of scale," he said.

What happens if the DOE money comes through? Well, Th!nk would build its North American plant, probably in a place where the cars can be produced and sold; and a nearby battery production facility would help (currently eight states, including Michigan, are in the running for this plant). This would be as uncomplicated a plant as possible. The Norwegian facility uses Th!nk's simple manufacturing process (developed with help from Ford and Porsche), and could break even by making and selling 5,000 vehicles a year. Following the City's U.S. introduction, Th!nk NA would design a new body style in 2011 (maybe like this) that would be used around the world. The electric drive technology would stay the same. Currently, the City meets all European crash test standards and also meets all of the European appliance standards - it needs to do this because it plugs in. Canny said Th!nk expects the American version to easily meet all Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS).

Canny (right) and Lyons

Originally, Th!nk North America was established as a joint venture with Kleiner Perking Caulfield and Byers (25 percent) and Rockport Capital (25 percent). Parent company Th!nk Global owned 50 percent, but then reacquired all of the Th!nk NA shares from the other partners in a non-cash transaction.

One more note on the battery lease idea. Canny said that Th!nk NA would not exclude battery sales (instead of the likely $80-90 montly fee to lease the batteries) should someone come to them and directly ask for it, but at this point they are not sure that's what the market will demand. I guess it's up to you to tell them what you want, folks.

UPDATE: read our first driving impressions here.

Click above for a gallery of the Th!nk City in Detroit

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