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Saturday, February 6, 2010

Electric Cars Charging Ahead



For further proof that electric cars are charging ahead, take the 2010 North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

For the past three years, e-cars have been relegated to the cellar of downtown Detroit's sprawling Cobo Center convention hall, where few of the more than 650,000 visitors to North America's largest auto showcase ever go.

But this year, these emerging vehicles get main-floor real estate. They get to preen in a 37,000-square-foot Electric Avenue. Sponsored by Dow Chemical, this is a first for the huge show, which opened for press events Monday and runs through Jan. 24.

Electric Avenue houses 20 electric-car makers ranging from Chevrolet, with its Volt, and Mitsubishi, with its MiEV (Innovative Electric Vehicle), to a collection of small outfits that for now are operating on batteries, a wing and a prayer.

"The Tango is the only car here that can really change the world," said Rick Woodbury, president of Spokane, Wash.-based, Tango Commuter Cars. The Tango is a 39-inch-wide two-seater that Woodbury says can go 135 mph and is narrow enough to share a lane with a motorcycle or another Tango, if that were legal. (In most of the U.S., it is not.)

Woodbury's company has built just a few Tangos, one of which he sold for $150,000 to actor George Clooney.

Woodbury bought the car back from Clooney after Clooney purchased a sporty Tesla electric car. The Tango's second seat is behind, not beside, the driver's seat. "Clooney's girlfriend wouldn't ride there," Woodbury said.

Like many entrepreneurs in the e-car field, Woodbury pines for investors. If he could latch onto, say, $150 million, he says he could build the cars for $29,000 in volume -- and business would get in gear.

"Investors," he lamented, "just don't understand."

Next door on Electric Avenue is the Triac, a three-wheeler built by Green Vehicles Inc.

Company President Mike Ryan says the Triac, which can seat four, is really a motorcycle and can be licensed as such. It sells for $25,000 before U.S. government energy rebates of up to $7,500. It can go 80 mph and has a 100-mile range. It has a warning system when you're running low. To recharge e-cars, you simply plug them into an electric outlet. But a recharge can take hours.

With a Triac "you aren't going to be a speed demon, but you won't hold up traffic," Ryan said.

He says his company has sold 40 of the vehicles. Ryan hopes to expand into full-scale manufacturing by October.

CT&T United focuses on making commercial e-vehicles such as delivery trucks, police cars and even a line of food trucks, which it calls City Cafeteria. The City Cafeteria comes complete with an awning, refrigeration and a grill, and costs $20,000, says Joseph White, chief operating officer of the Korean-based company.

Basic CTC vehicles start at about $7,000, before rebates, with larger and more feature-laden vehicles averaging $13,000. They can reach 35 mph and can go up to 80 miles on a single charge of their lithium polymer batteries.

CT&T, which was started in 2002, has manufacturing facilities in South Korea and China. Starting this year, the company plans to build components in Korea and ship them to assembly plants it plans to establish in Atlanta and California. White says CT&T hopes to employ 2,600 people in the U.S. within five years.

Over on the north end of Electric Avenue, David Patterson, Mitsubishi North America's chief engineer for advanced technology, sounds confident when he talks about the MiEV. It's been available for about a month, but for now only in Japan. Mitsubishi says it has sold 1,400 already.

In Japan, the cars sell for $45,000, but Patterson says buyers can get $20,000 worth of incentives, bringing their cost down to $25,000.

While most of the big automakers have some presence on Electric Avenue, Mitsubishi is by far the biggest of the big companies looking to make a splash at the auto show's new feature.

And at 1,400 sales, it's already the block's big seller. Mitsubishi plans to start selling its MiEV in the U.S. in 2011. Unlike most of the cars on Electric Avenue, MiEV looks like a conventional gas-powered vehicle.

"The only way electric vehicles are going to be successful is by being ordinary vehicles," Patterson said.

Mitsubishi has concentrated on making the cars familiar before they hit the market. It has leased a small fleet of them to Best Buy to transport its Geek Squad. Similar deals are on deck, Patterson says.

In Japan, Lawson, that nation's second-largest chain of convenience stores, has added MiEV charging stations to all its outlets. The company is looking for U.S. recharging station partners.

The MiEV runs on lithium ion batteries. It has a 75-mile range and can go 85 mph on a charge.

Patterson says the company hasn't determined prices for the U.S. market. Whatever the price, he says the U.S. market will get a proven vehicle. "What we bring to the party is experience," he said.