After almost 20 years in the electric car business, Think is finally, seriously ready to bring its City electric vehicle (EV) to the world. The company has suffered through a lot these past few years, but the way things look right now, EV fans – starting with European and American urbanites – will have the chance to buy the quirky but wonderfully functional EV very soon.
The City has been available in Europe for a while, not counting the time when Think was bankrupt and needed to be bailed out and move production from Norway to Finland. The car sold in Europe uses an MES-DEA Zebra Sodium battery that isn't the newest technology, but it works and has gotten Think this far. New packs – including lithium-ion units from EnerDel and other suppliers – are on the horizon and are playing a role in Think's upcoming expansion into markets and, soon, with new vehicles.
We recently had the chance to visit Think's new production line at the Valmet Automotive factory in Uusikaupunki, Finland. We got to drive the latest Euro-spec City, see the vehicles being made and learn how this small and simple EV is trying to "change the world, one car at a time." Read on after the jump to find out more.
Photos by Sebastian Blanco / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.
"Changing the World – One Car At A Time" is Think's latest logo. It's been used informally within the company for a while, but now that things seem to be on track for new markets and new models, the little company's bold plan can be spoken in public. Like all big plans, it starts small. Think, which was owned by Ford from 1999-2003, is currently selling the City EV in Scandinavia and has demonstration projects in the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland and Spain that will likely turn into retail markets "in a year of two" when local incentives grow, said Think CEO Richard Canny. The initial batch of City vehicles will be coming to the U.S. later this year and the first markets here, including New York City, will be chosen based on where the best incentives are offered. Canny said he expects around 20 retail areas in the U.S. by mid-2012, with further expansion coming later.
The big picture of Think's market and expansion plan looks like this:
- 2008-2009: Sales in Scandinavia only (oh, and deal with the bankruptcy)
- 2009-2010: EU & US demo fleets. Key markets are Norway, Austria, Switzerland, France and Spain. Sell 300-800 cars in each market in 2010.
- 2010-2011: Large scale fleets and partnerships with the French Post, Autolieb and Movele. Sell to retail customers where there are subsidies. Think plans to expand to the U.S., other Nordic countries, Germany, the UK, Ireland, Belgium and Israel. Most of these sales will be to urban fleet customers, including some car sharing companies.
- 2012-2013: Customers have a broad choice of EVs with increased range and a lower cost/price. There is a growing retail segment and fleet approval. Think introduces next-gen City.
Think believes that if government incentives on par with what's available today continue through to 2013 or 2014, then EV volume will increase to the point where government incentives can drop off and leave a strong EV industry behind. To reach that level, though, Think will prioritize sales in markets that have strong retail incentives. Think appoints project partners to handle initial sales and provide service infrastructure for customers. Think also wants to differentiate itself in the market in the way customers interact with and then lease or buy the car. Canny said his company wants to introduce "disruptive distribution methods" like car sharing (and battery leasing) because, "The way of going to market [with an electric car] may not be the same as with a normal car." Like with Think's other efforts, different strategies will be implemented in different markets. In Austria and Norway, for example, Think plans to have (or has, in Norway) a more conventional sales channels. Other locations could piggyback on the car's introduction with utility companies or at aftermarket specialty stores. Another option is to retail the car at big box stores, like Best Buy or Ikea. Think has "an innovative new distribution concept with a large Swiss partner to be announced shortly," about which all Think would say is that this is a non-traditional automotive partner and we'll hear more in the next month or two.
To reach all of these new markets, Think needs to build more cars. As we said, Think recently began producing the City in Finland at the same facility where Valmet makes the Porsche Boxsters and Caymans under contract and is supposed to make the Fisker Karma plug-in series hybrid as well. While the Fisker project has been delayed, it took just 13 weeks to move the 14-station production line from Norway to Finland after the announcement was made last year. The partnership with Think was established in August 2009 and the first vehicles from Valmet were delivered in December. Valmet, which was started in 1968 as an industrial cooperation between Finland and Sweden, is a good choice for Think production. The company knows from building EVs: the tour trolley we rode in through the plant is the first EV Valmet ever made, and it was built 40 years ago. As our guide said, that proves how long electric vehicles can last. Valmet also makes the Garia luxury golf cart. (For more on the U.S. production figures, read this.)
Think wants its own EVs made at the plant to be just as reliable as the Porsches and Fisker vehicles. To that end, every vehicle has a tracker form, with each operator on the line taking ownership of the process and noting any potential problems. The employees take their responsibility seriously, and pride themselves on building high-quality vehicles and recommending ways to make the process better. In 2008, Valmet had 1,683 employee suggestions per 100 employees. Even after all of the individual safety and quality checks, each City goes through a 15-minute test station at the end of the line, a rain simulator and a three-kilometer road test to make sure everything is working correctly.
The vehicles made in Uusikaupunki are the European-spec City. This model has sodium Zebra batteries that give similar performance levels to the li-ion packs that EnerDel, a Think investor, will make for Think in America. Here are the specs of the two packs:
While the batteries provide similar performance, Think has said it will boost the U.S. model's top speed to better match our driving style. To this end, while the Euro-City uses a 35 kW motor, the U.S. will get a 50 kW set-up. Even with these spruced-up options, Think knows that not everyone will rush out to buy a City. "It's not for everybody," Canny admitted. "It's an urban commuter car with a 100-mile range." One issue that used to make Think hesitant about the U.S. market is that Americans "used to be kind of hesitant about the small size of the City," Canny said. Now that so many companies have introduced similar vehicles – the Smart Fortwo, the Ford Fiesta and Mazda2 spring to mind – size isn't as big a concern today.
Performance is one thing, but what about price? With the Nissan Leaf debuting at an impressive $25,000 (after federal rebates), will the City be able to compete? Canny said that Think might come into the game with a sub-$20k price... and a huge asterisk. "We like battery leasing, and we know our customers do, too," he said. Think has trialed it in Norway. The need for battery leasing will diminish in the coming years as more governments incentives become available. For now, though, leasing is "a good tool to help increase the adoption of electric vehicles. You can imagine, in the U.S., it would be great for us to be able to offer a Think City for $19,995 plus, say, $89 a month for a battery lease. It would be something we would like to experiment with." Buying the car with the battery outright will be somewhere in the $20,000 range (we're guessing at the upper end). Nissan and other automakers have dismissed the battery leasing idea as too complicated.
In a few years, Think will introduce the next-gen City. It will be around the same size as today's City and will keep the Scandinavian design ethos intact, but will be a full four-seat vehicle. The car is due on the market in 2012 as a 2013 model year and the vehicle will be an "all-new car in the sense that it'll have all-new exterior, all-new interior," Canny said. The EV drive system, though, "will continue to be updated, around every 18 months with newer technology," he said. Think can use its modular powerplant system to introduce new features like fast charge capability and more telematics and other connectivitiy options every year and a half or so. One new option that's coming is an iPhone app that can pre-heat or pre-cool the vehicle and can relay the battery's state of charge and estimated range. In keeping with Think's accept-all-comers approach, the car's communications will be open source, so that anyone on any system/network (hi, Android) can develop apps to interact with the car. Of course, there will be a firewall to prevent, for example, Dr. Horrible from controlling the vehicle just as he finally gets to talk to the girl of his dreams.
While the company is working on updating a lot of features for each mini-generation of Citys, the brand message is that this car (and, yes EVs in general) is simple and straightforward. Thing cars are designed to be clean – Katinka von der Lippe, Think's head of design, said the City's look was "positive and honest" – and that's what customers can expect when they decide to get behind the wheel for good. As Canny said:
When this happens, we'll be there to see what happens. We've enjoyed our drives of the Think City now on two continents – last year, we drove the Euro-spec model in the U.S. The cars we drove in Finland are almost exactly the same but the new power steering makes driving the already fun car even better – and we imagine a lot more people will agree that the City has a lot going for it, plain and simple. Enough to win the EV challenge? That's for you to decide.I think we're trying to keep EVs simple, in terms of presenting the technology to our customers and saying that this isn't somewhere where you need to make a lot of compromises to do. You just plug it in every night and it's full the next day. You use it, there's no maintenance required. It drives like a regular car. But we're also trying to go beyond that and say, with telematics here are some of the things you can do: pre-heat and pre-cool the cabin, for example. We don't intend to give people a choice between battery A, B or C, for example. That will be something we'll manage by market.
Our travel and lodging for this media event were paid for by the manufacturer