Change of Fortune
By Bill Moore
AC Propulsion (ACP) has struggled for more than a decade as an R&D shop specializing in electric-drive system engineering. In addition to its own internal development, it's quietly worked with the likes of Volkswagen and Volvo, as well as various California state agencies. Yet the vicissitudes of state regulations and automaker caprice have both buoyed and dashed ACP's hopes and ambitions over the last decade.
But last year, at the 2003 Michelin Challenge Bibendum, the company's extremely agile tzero sports car -- powered by a 200 hp AC drive and some 6,000 lithium ion cells assembled from off-the-shelf, laptop computer batteries -- garnered a great deal of international media attention, including being featured in the PBS science series hosted by actor Alan Alda, Scientific American Frontiers.
That little yellow car -- which is capable of beating the best of the best with its tire-blistering 4.3 seconds, zero-to-sixty performance -- seems to have opened a few eyes, leading directly to three hush-hush projects over the past year, all three of which debuted within less than a month of each other. To learn more about those programs and what they mean to ACP, we got Tom Gage, the company president, on the telephone just a few days after his return from the 2004 Challenge Bibendum in Shanghai, China.
The 2004 Challenge was the third one Gage has attended, and the second one in which the company fielded their technology. He wanted to make sure that he let Michelin know how much he appreciated their organizing the annual event, which uniquely enables small firms like his to compete, side-by-side, with the world's biggest automakers.
While half of the more than 150 vehicles entered in the Bibendum were electric drive and many of these were battery electric, far fewer actually participated in the competition, itself. Many were there simply to show their wares, including eight huge, 40-passenger, battery electric intercity motor coaches and a swarm of two-wheeled electric bicycles and motor scooters.
Five Star Students
Two vehicles that did compete -- with surprising final scores -- was the Courreges EXE and the Volvo 3CC, both powered by ACP electric drives.
The EXE is the second battery electric car to be built by the Paris fashion design house. Madame Coqueline Courreges and his small team of designers and employees entered a unique "bubble" car in the 2003 Bibendum held in Sonoma, California.
According to Gage, when Courreges saw how well the tzero performed, she approached ACP-founder Alan Cocconi, who speaks French, about buying a complete drive system, including the lithium battery pack, for what would eventually become the EXE. By early in 2004, ACP had an order for a complete system: the AC induction motor, controller and batteries, or in Gage's term, "lock, stock and barrel."
Then with classic French savoir faire, Courreges came up with another unconventional design sporting custom-made red tires by Michelin -- who else? -- and a Lexan canopy. Gage added that the Courreges team also had a complete spare set of green and blue tires in their garage bay, as well.
So, why would a fashion designer want to build electric cars? Gage replied that based on Alan Cocconi's many hours of conversation with Madame Courreges, it is her fundamental belief that this is the direction we need to go; that electric cars will do pretty much everything most people need them to do. They are both clean and efficient, a concept a fashion designer can especially appreciate.
From Gage's perspective, although the EXE isn't a particularly functional vehicle -- he wouldn't want to be caught out in the rain in it -- its silhouette is attractive; and its performance isn't too shabby either. He recalls it did zero-to-sixty in something like 6.5 or 6.3 seconds.
The second -- and perhaps more promising -- electric vehicle to make use of ACP's drive system during the Challenge was the Volvo 3CC, a product of the Swedish carmaker's Camarillo, California concept center. Gage explained to EV World that Volvo, which is owned now by Ford Motor Company, has been a long time client of ACP's, but that this particular project came as a complete surprise. Gage had been told that it was going to be a show car only.
"The people there" (including chief concept strategist, Douglas Frasher) "are interested in EVs and hybrids," Gage said. Their efforts focus on safety, efficiency and sustainability, very much in keeping with the purpose of the Challenge Bibendum. He also pointed out that the entire car was designed and built in California, despite its recognized Swedish nameplate. AC Propulsion worked closely with them to come up with the drive package that fit the design of the vehicle, which included a smaller lithium ion battery pack than in the tzero.
Despite this, the 3CC and the EXE performed surprisingly well in the competition. Gage told me that me may be the only one to do this, but he takes the letter grades that are handed out to each vehicle in the Challenge's ten competitive events and creates the equivalent of a grade point average or GPA for them, with an "A" equaling a value of 4.
"The GPA's this year came out that the Courreges EXE had the second highest overall GPA," he said with obvious pride. "And the Volvo 3CC had the third highest. So we came in second and third." Taking the top honors was a specially-honed, factory Toyota Prius.
What makes the final scores even more amazing is that neither the EXE nor the 3CC were running when September came around.
"There was a lot of late night, midnight oil burned, " Gage confided. "We sent two of our people to Paris to get the [EXE] running, and we were in a lot of down-to-the-wire work with Volvo and their contractors, as well. We didn't actually build their car, but we did a lot of final tuning and development to get the thing running."
Revealing the "Fetish"
From Shanghai, we turned our attention back to Paris and this time to their annual auto show where the small GT-class manufacturer Venturi debuted its exotic new "Fetish" sports car, again powered by AC Propulsion. Gage said that he'd been talking to the Monaco-based company for about two years.
"What I think they see is that electric drive, besides its obvious benefits to the environment, is a way for them to differentiate themselves, because big automakers are getting better at creating and selling niche products. The Ford GT is an example of that. A big company can make a car in very low volume. That used to be where these small companies found their market," he stated.
"What Venturi liked was that we had a drive system that would give them the good performance that they need for their customers. So, with the Fetish, Venturi stakes out a new territory and no major auto company is going to touch that niche for years, if ever."
The drive system in the Fetish, which is mounted behind the driver compartment, is based, again, on the standard tzero drive with some tweaks for even better performance, including a much larger lithium ion battery pack, also assembled out of laptop computer cells.
"It's a unique packaging approach where the batteries are packaged in a "T" right down the middle of the car". This is similar to the GM EV1 layout where the crossbar of the "T" sits behind the seats and the rest of the batteries sit in what would be the transmission tunnel on a gasoline engine model.
"They built a carbon fiber chassis and a body. The whole car is, basically, their own development, and we worked very closely with them on packaging the batteries and drive system."
While Gage is under the impression that the Paris show was a great success for Venturi in terms of international press coverage and potential buyer interest, he deferred to the company any questions about future production plans. He added that over its 20 year history, Venturi has built less than 1,000 cars.
"They cater to a very small niche."
EV Development in China
I asked Gage what his impressions were of electric vehicle development in China.
"An awful lot of people are trying a lot of different things," he replied. "We talked to some of the small time EV guys there, as opposed to major car companies, and they're doing some very interesting stuff. Some have some pretty decent hardware; and one advantage they have is that Chinese battery companies are competing to improve lithium ion batteries, and other kinds of batteries, to make them work in cars. So, they are kind of working together. Right now the battery companies are the ones that have the money, but they see a real potential market there, so they are actively working the EV arena to come up with an EV battery. That's a really big help."
Gage reminded me that the automobile market in China is still quite young and dominated by joint-ventures with Western and Japanese car makers, building large sedans and SUVs that really aren't all that well suited to the market.
"But there are also quite a few small, but aggressive, all-Chinese automakers," he noted, "as well as these battery makers and big industry in China. And I think that between them and the government control of industries over there, it's very hard to predict in which direction things will go. But one big difference is that the major auto companies don't seem to be really in total control over there. So, there's a lot of scope for the market to move in directions that we've not seen in other major markets in the world."
Gage is of the opinion that unlike the West, with its well-established auto industry and the control it can exert over the marketplace, the government in China still can exercise sufficient control to influence in which direction the car industry moves. A significant part of this situation is the fact that, for the moment, Western and Japanese companies are prohibited from owning more than 50 percent of their joint-ventures, which limits their scope of action and influence.
"They have to tread lightly," he told me. "They really have to abide by the direction of the Chinese government and existing Chinese automakers."
"They can see that their market is poised to grow incredibly fast and right now is the time they need to set the direction before it's too late."
No Watershed for EVs
Given the 70 some electric drive vehicles registered to participate in the Bibendum this year, either in the competition or in static displays, I asked Gage if he thought the event would prove a watershed for the technology.
He responded that he didn't think so. There were no major announcements or "earth shattering developments" that he saw. Instead, he views it as another step forward "in the evolution of people's thinking about cars." He quoted from Volvo's public statements about its 3CC, which "moves us towards a totally new mobility perspective of not using more car than you need. The global market is changing from a one-car-fits-all notion to using different cars for different needs".
Gage added that this is where an electric car fits in, because it is "extremely well suited for local driving and urban driving".
As an example, Gage said that he noticed numerous electric-drive motor scooters and bicycles being ridden by Shanghai residents as he rode between the track and the hotel.
"These were everyday transportation appliances. They weren't cool little toys or status symbols. They were literally how people get around. And so, it stands to reason that people who are used to driving electric scooters and charging them at home will not have either mispreceptions (sic) nor illusions about electric transportation, what it can and cannot do. And they will understand the range and cost trade-offs, to some degree, and I think they'll consider buying EVs if and when they become available."
He sees this as helping the development of EVs in China, unlike Western markets that don't have much experience with electric transportation. At the moment, however, Gage wasn't aware of any street-capable EVs currently available for sale in China, though he admitted that there might have been some in the exhibit area, which he didn't have time to visit. The cars that he did see would be considered in North America as Neighborhood or City-class EVs.
I also asked him if he had a sense of how the Big OEMs like GM, DaimlerChrysler and Ford, viewed all the electric vehicle activity obviously taking place in China. He commented that it seemed to him that Honda (Accord), GM (Buick Regal) and VW (Passat), who currently build the most popular cars in China through their joint ventures, are building cars for the wealthiest top of the marketplace where people have the money to afford cars that sell for twice what they do in the U.S.A. He speculated that while this may meet their short-term business objectives, they may also be missing a much larger, but still future market for smaller, more efficient vehicles that can be sold to the burgeoning middle class. It is this market that may prove fertile ground for EV sales.
Given what he perceived was a lackadaisical attitude towards last year's Bibendum by the major car companies, whom he thought used the event in Sonoma more for public relations purposes than to demonstrate their technological prowess, Gage was surprised by how well the Toyota entry performed. He had expected the 3CC to take the competition, rather than the gasoline-engine Prius. So that was both a surprise and a disappointment, though he credits Toyota for its dedication and drive.
Another surprise was that neither Honda nor Toyota brought their fuel cell vehicles to the competition, while GM, Ford, Nissan, Hyundai and DaimlerChrysler did.
"I don't know what to read into that", he commented to me. "But for all the press, PR and hype they get over here and out here in California, for them to not have any fuel cell cars there was a surprise."
Any disappointments that Gage might have had, he reassured EV World, were absolved by having the opportunity to drive the EXE a couple times around Shanghai's new Formula One race track, at which the Challenge was held.
Gage acknowledged that his company is at its best as an R&D house, not a manufacturer. As a result, he hopes to continue to work with Courreges and Venturi on future projects, and perhaps even Volvo. ACP has also recently signed a licensing agreement with a fourth, as yet, unnamed company based in California, that wishes to "fly low under the radar" for the moment. He also has similar agreements in the works with others, including some possible "feelers" in China as a result of the Bibendum.
With respect to a previously announced program to convert Toyota Scions into 4-passenger EVs, Gage said the self-funded project is continuing to move forward, but that he has had to give priority to paying customers. He did note, however, that the lessons learned from the Courreges, Volvo and Venturi programs are being applied to the Scion project.
"I think the timing is right to close on the funding that we need to make the Scion a go program", he stated.