Géraldine Gabin and Xavier Chevrin stop to take a photo along a Chinese highway on their way to Mongolia and the Gobi Desert. The vehicle has a range of 400km (250 mi) on a charge.
Malcolm Bricklin's New Electric Car Dream
The founder of Visionary Vehicles' talks about his plan to offer by 2010 a luxury vehicle-to-grid, electric hybrid for under $35,000.
By Bill Moore
It will have the same proportions and performance as a Mercedes S Class, along with luxury leather seats and wood grain appointments. It will likely be built in China, but perhaps not. More importantly, it will boast a battery that will be warranted for 250,000 miles, be rapidly rechargeable, and propel the car upwards of 40 miles on electric power only, while still having a 800-miles plus of hybrid range.
Meet Malcolm Bricklin's Visionary Vehicle, which he plans to offer for sale to American buyers as early as 2010 for less than $35,000.
Bricklin is most notably remembered for bringing Subaru to North America and later, but less successfully, the quirky little Yugo from Yugoslavia before country disintegrated into a brutal civil war. His attempt to start is own car company saw less than two thousand cars built before calling it quits. He even partnered with Malcolm Currie and Richard Mayer on the short-lived EV Warrior electric bike, a Business Week magazine advertisement for which spurred the eventual launch of this publication a decade ago.
As you will learn from the MP3 interview, as late as a year ago, Bricklin had no intention of getting involved with electric vehicles again. Instead, he was busy scurrying about China in negotiations of bring Chery automobiles to the U.S. until a larger suitor in the form of the then-DaimlerChrysler came along and wooed Chery away.
It was Bricklin's friend and old business partner, Malcolm Currie, who urged him to reconsider his plans and instead of importing another cheap car, to think seriously about making them as clean and green as possible, explaining to him that plug-in hybrids were the wave of the future.
Dr. Currie not only founded the company that still bears his name and has sold more electric bikes than any other U.S. company to date, but also had once headed up Hughes Electronics and oversaw that company's involvement in the development of General Motor's EV1 electric car. Bricklin was skeptical, pointing out that the problem with electric cars continues to be the battery, but Currie and Mayer, who was also shuttling to and from China, had tracked down a battery that impress them both.
Now a year later, Bricklin hasn't just jumped on the plug-in hybrid bandwagon, he's planning to lead it, or in his words, "kick-start" the electric car business. To find out how, we encourage you to listen to this 25-minute interview using either of the two MP3 players at the top of the page, or you may download it to your computer for transfer and playback on your favorite MP3 device. This is one EV World interview you will definitely want to take the time to hear.
IN BRIEF: Synopsis of Interview
Malcolm Currie told Bricklin that if he is planning to manufacture and import cars, he had a moral duty to make them environmentally responsible and fuel efficient; and that "electric hybrid plug-ins are the way to go." Despite his skepticism and being "sick and tired" of battery technology always being ready "next year", Currie reassured him that it is "absolutely" ready. This spurred a globe-hopping trip looking not only at batteries, but also electric motors and other relevant technologies, in the process discovering there is a great deal of pent up demand for an affordable, clean, 100-mpg equivalent, luxury vehicle around the planet.
Bricklin has tapped Herb Grasse, the designer of his original Bricklin SV-1, to design his new car. In 2002 and 2004, Grasse had done a couple new concept designs for Bricklin. The new car will be the same size as a S-Class Mercedes, only slightly wider. He plans for it to have the same performance as the S-Class, but get 100 mpg using an electric hybrid plug-in drive.
Bricklin has abandoned his plan to have a demonstrator available this year, focusing instead on getting fiberglass body panels finished for installation on their working mules. It is this admittedly crude vehicle that he will eventually show to investors and potential dealers, he is hoping in the next 3-4 months.
While the mules are being developed, Bricklin is working on setting up some 250 sales and service centers that will handle not only his cars, but also other electric-drive vehicles, providing a place for owners to take their vehicles where the staff knows the difference between amps and volts, as he puts it.
Meanwhile, Visionary Vehicles is hunting down manufacturers, especially in China, to cut the price of components like the batteries and motors, which have to cost, not $30-40,000 dollars for a pack, but $5-6,000. Bricklin's way to solve the problem is to place large orders, which then drives down the cost per unit. He is requiring his dealers to order up-front 1000 cars each. Multiple that times 250 dealers and that equals a cool quarter million cars. With this he can negotiate the price of the batteries from $20-30,000 down to $5,000. He is also going to offer other companies to buy their components from him and if they do, Bricklin will let them sell their vehicle through his dealer network.
While he will not reveal details on the battery, he promises that the company, which is publicly-owned, will jointly make an announcement with Bricklin. But what he could say is that it meets his criteria for safety ("It won't go boom") and durabiity, especially in the light of Bricklin's plan to give the car vehicle-to-grid charging and discharge capability.
[Bricklin has obviously been paying close attention and in fact told me privately that EV World is responsible -- to a degree -- for his moving in this direction].
Just as dramatic, he is planning to warrant the battery pack for 250,000 miles; and that the battery will actually do "considerably more than that" at which point, it will be removed from the car and re-tasked to store off-peak power that will be sold back to the grid for a profit.
Bricklin said he had three critical groups he has had to sell this project to starting with himself and his own insider team. Next he had to convince up to 250 businessmen and women to become dealers, which means ordering those 1,000 first cars each. That, he assures me, is going well and that it looks like he'll reach his goal. The last group to sell are U.S. consumers. He said that if he can deliver the vehicle he is promising, that Visionary Vehicles will never be able to build enough of them.
He isn't afraid of the heavy-weight competition that appears to be building in the major OEM camp from the likes of Toyota, Ford, Chrysler and GM. He believes that if they can all deliver on their promises that there will be demand that will never be satisfied for the next ten years. He pointed out, however, that most of these companies are heavily encumbered by old technology and infrastructure building gasoline engines and transmissions. He points to the success of Southwest and JetBlue airlines compared to the old line majors that continue to struggle in and out of bankruptcy.
Bricklin also is offering to provide his large OEM competitors access to his supply chain if they want it.
Visionary Vehicles is, for the time being, relying solely on American and European engineering expertise and none from China. The company will also shortly announce who their key engineering partner will be and "everyone will be duly impressed" he stated.
While Bricklin initially is looking to manufacture the vehicle in China, he is also considering proposals from South Africa and Turkey, along with other unidentified countries who want to be known as the center for the clean vehicle revolution and are willing to put up the money to build the necessary factories.
The secret to a good quality vehicle is good engineering to start with, Bricklin contends, in response to my question about the quality control problems in China. He explains that the Chinese auto industry's model has been to copy someone else's car and then try to build it cheaper. Visionary Vehicle's approach will be to develop a well engineered car to start with and then bring it along with all the tooling to China, or wherever the car will be assembled. Then the Chinese manufacturer must understand the need for quality control and how that applies this vehicle. Finally, a quality control specialist in the employee of Visionary Vehicles will be on hand to monitor quality control "so that every single part is checked before it leaves the supplier." The advantage of China's cheaper labor pool is, from Bricklin's perspective, that he can hire more qualified people to do the monitoring job.
Bricklin's interest in electric vehicles dates back to the 1970s, but the technology then was limited to lead acid batteries and mechanical contactors. An EV back then just wasn't all that practical. NiCads had memory issues. NiMH looked more promising, as does lithium ion today.
Visionary Vehicles' base model will have 40 miles of electric-only range, augmented by a "revolutionary" 60 hp engine operating at 3,000 rpm as a generator to charge the batteries when they deplete 60 percent. The range with a 10 US gallon tank will be 800 miles plus. The car will have a 300 hp electric motor, which may be upgraded to 200 hp electric hub motors creating an AWD model with the equivalent of 800 hp combined. The engine will be flexible-fuel capable.
Bricklin's goal is to create a car that has "no excuses." Owners and drivers will not have to "do without something." Because of this -- along with concerns about energy security -- he believes that half of the vehicles sold will be plug-in hybrids in 10 years.
Bricklin admits he has a problem getting into an all-electric car knowing that its range is limited; therefore, for the time being, he has no plans to offer a battery-only electric car.
Visionary Vehicles may start having cars rolling off the line by 2009, Bricklin stated, but that he's been advised to do extended real world testing of the vehicles for at least six months to work out the bugs before offering them for sale to the general public.
Finally, Bricklin informed EV World that his son will be documenting the entire development process on video and that those progress reports will be available online to the public at the www.vvcars.com web site.
To download the 6.4MB MP3 audio file of this 25-minute interview, use the following URL: http://www.evworld.com/evworld_audio/malcolm_bricklin.mp3.