Bright Idea PHEV van – Click above for high-res image gallery

Last time, I reported some of what key presenters had to say at the October Center for Automotive Research (CAR) "Business of Plugging In" (BPI) conference in Detroit. This time, I will offer a bit more of that from an interesting afternoon session.

With a nod toward the inspirational 1989 Kevin Costner movie Field of Dreams, last year's inaugural BPI conference asked the question: "When We Build It...Will They Come?" This year's afternoon session was, "We're Building Them – so Who's Going To Buy Them?" The session description explained:
This year, several manufacturers are introducing PEV models into the market. The question now becomes, 'So...Who's going to buy them?' Possibly the most challenging variable in the business of plugging in equation is consumer acceptance. Beyond an early price disadvantage, the PEV will also present some different use characteristics. This panel will address near-term (and longer) consumer acceptance.
What happened? Read on after the jump to find out.




Introduced first by moderator Brett Smith, who is co-director of CAR's Manufacturing, Engineering and Technology Group, was Michael Brylawski, executive VP of corporate strategy, Bright Automotive. A 2008 Anderson, Indiana start-up, Bright has developed a "100+ mile per gallon purpose-built," plug-in hybrid electric Bright IDEA concept van aimed at commercial and government fleets. It is currently offering potential customers battery packs, conversion PHEVs and electric vehicles (EVs), hybrid system consulting and alternative powertrain modeling simulations.

Brylawski talked about Bright's IDEA concept van and its EV conversions, one for the U.S. Postal Service, another for the Department of Defense. "You have to look at the total financial picture – fuel, maintenance, service – not just price," he pointed out.

Next up was Chevy Volt marketing director Tony DiSalle, who said he sees three early customers for Volt, as well as other PEVs: technology adopters, environmental buyers and a group he calls "influencers," who will pave the way for eventual mass-market acceptance. Sherif Marakby, Ford's director of electrification programs and engineering, cited similar custsomers – early adopters and "enviro-consumers" – in addition to fleets. Fleets are an important potential buyer group for EVs since they will be pricey initially but promise near-zero maintenance cost. Fleet buyers look at total cost of ownership more than purchase price, and typical light delivery fleets have low range requirements and central bases for nightly recharging. The only downside, he said, may be uncertainty about resale values.

Marakby admitted that there may be early "cannibalization" of HEV sales but said that:
BEVs are much simpler and easier to engineer than HEVs. There is definitely a delta in cost, but we continue to work very aggressively on the cost side. Higher fuel prices will drive people to this technology, and creative leasing and financing will enable acceptance.
When the floor was then opened for questions, someone asked how car companies will balance their portfolios to meet ever-increasing CAFE requirements "without going broke." Marakby responded that Ford will continue to engineer its vehicles to customers and drive cycles. His point was that doing a good job of that should also take care of CAFE.

Another asked whether moving toward high numbers of EVs would substitute rare-earth-metal dependency for petroleum dependency. "If we have to make choices," Marakby said," there are alternatives. And we don't foresee a shortage of lithium. There is good supply and only a tiny amount of content per battery."

Another asked how automakers can resolve the "catch 22" of high EV cost vs. the need for increasing volume. Marakby contended that all-electric and plug-in hybrid powertrains, though very different, can share a lot of componentry, which will lead to economies of scale. "There is a huge difference in component costs between 5,000 and 150,000 units," he said.

One other 2010 BPI attraction was a selection of plug-in vehicles to sample on a short outdoor course. On my way out, I ran into Bob Purcell. As executive director of GM Advanced Technology Vehicles from 1994-2002, he was my boss' boss' boss in the years I labored there as vehicle test and development manager – the guy who was charged by GM's then Board of Directors with the daunting challenge of making a viable business of EV technology in the 1990s. While that didn't work out, it was not for lack of effort or dedication.

Purcell had just been named Chairman and CEO of Protean Holdings Corp., parent company of Protean Electric, a "leading clean technology company that designs, develops and manufactures the Protean Drive, a fully integrated, in-wheel, direct-drive motor" with its own built-in inverter, control electronics and software. Its mission is to electrify vehicles of any size with no compromise in performance...though I wonder (as always) about cost and practicality.

An obviously enthusiastic true believer in his new company's product, he asked me to check out the prototype Protean Drive-equipped conversion F-150 pickup outside. I said I would. But it turned out that the Protean Electric F-150 was not available for driving, just looking. I looked, but didn't learn much. I'll look forward to driving it another time.

Among the other pre-production, prototype and concept vehicles available were a Mini E (which I've driven before), a Smart Fortwo ED (ditto), a Ford Focus Electric, an AMP Electric Chevy Equinox conversion, and both Ford Escape and Toyota Prius PHEVs. But it was late, and time was short. I was curious about the very ordinary-looking AMP Equinox, so waited in line for that. Turned out it was a nice, well-done conversion with ample zip and "up to 150-mile" claimed range from a 37.5 kWh lithium-ion-phosphate pack. But its high $47K base price (nearly double that of a well-equipped conventional Equinox) seemed daunting...except for affluent EV enthusiasts and long-view fleet buyers, I guess.

ford transit connect electric van
Ford Transit Connect Electric van – Click above for high-res image gallery

Also on hand were early production examples of Chevy's Volt, Nissan's Leaf and Ford's soon-to-come Transit Connect Electric, all with long lines. I had already driven a Leaf several miles on public roads and knew I would be getting more time with one next week, and with a Volt in a couple of days. I did try out the Transit Connect Electric, but not much to report there. As a compact EV conversion delivery van, it drove (at low speeds) exactly as you would expect.

CAR's BPI was excellent again this year, brimming with EV optimism, enthusiasm and a bevy of gutsy entrepreneurs and small companies striving to cash in on an emerging EV market. Let's hope that one or more will break through with that long-elusive solution to the triple EV Achilles heels of high cost, limited range and long recharge times.

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Award-winning automotive writer Gary Witzenburg has been writing about automobiles, auto people and the auto industry for 21 years. A former auto engineer, race driver and advanced technology vehicle development manager, his work has appeared in a wide variety of national magazines including The Robb Report, Playboy, Popular Mechanics, Car and Driver, Road & Track, Motor Trend, Autoweek and Automobile Quarterly and has authored eight automotive books. He is currently contributing regularly to Kelley Blue Book (www.kbb.com), AutoMedia.com, Ward's Auto World and Motor Trend's Truck Trend and is a North American Car and Truck of the Year juror.

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