Bricklin's Expanding Vision
By Bill Moore
If the world could somehow find a way to tap into the seemingly inexhaustible energy that powers Malcolm Bricklin, any thoughts of an energy crisis would soon fade.
But even the indomitable Bricklin realizes he's fighting time. His efforts to pull together the necessary people and parts to build his S-Class Mercedes-like plug-in hybrid is taking longer than he expected, and the current economic crunch isn't making it any easier to raise the money he needs for his vision, which involves more than just another pretty car, plug-in hybrid or not.
Still, he had good news to share with me, as he explained the reasons why he and Electrovaya have joined forces, a move he announced at the 2008 North American International Auto Show, but found overshadowed by Henrik Fisker's own gorgeous, full-sized prototype, PHEV. Dubbed 'Karma', the long, low, sleek, gleaming concept car seemed to fire the imagination of the media far more so than Bricklin's little scale model of his own vehicle. Then there was AFV Trinity's XH and a trio of Chrysler LLC concept electric-vehicles. In short, the competition for attention for green vehicles was tough this year.
But Bricklin is astute enough to understand that a concept without a way to cost-effectively and safely and reliably propel it will remain just that, a concept. And the heart of any electric-drive vehicle is its battery.
So, he has spent the last 18-months searching the world over for the right battery and in the process has evolved both his business concept, as well as his definition of what he's looking for in that battery. It turns out, as you'll hear in my nearly 25-minute conversation with him, he's stopped looking for the perfect battery and begun hunting for the appropriate battery infrastructure.
"We came to the fact that no matter what [battery chemistry or technology] we picked, a year from now it is going to be different. And a year from then, it's going to different again. That's really one of problems everybody is trying to deal with. What technology do you invest in today, build up capacity... what gamble are you taking?" he asked rhetorically.
Bricklin points to Toyota's dilemma. It's built up its capacity to build 500,000 NiMH battery packs for its hybrids and now it is planning to replace that with lithium ion-based packs. What's it do with its NiMH investment? It proceeds slowly, Bricklin contends.
To avoid falling into the same trap, Visionary Vehicle's founder explained he began searching for a battery maker that was focused on battery manufacturing infrastructure. He found that company in Electrovaya who was focused on lining up the machinery and suppliers to build batteries -- any type -- rather than on a particular unique chemistry. The difference is subtle but important.
"That's what Electrovaya has," he commented. "They have put together a structure that allows them to put anything you want in there; and they happened to have picked a chemical that happens to be really, really great when it comes to density. So, I am talking about 15kW[h] that I will use in a car the size of a Mercedes S that will get me forty miles (64km) before the engine comes on and starts filling up the battery, and those batteries will weigh, total, less than 200 pounds (90kg). Including the BMS (battery management system), Bricklin says he believes the cost of the battery will be under $400/kWh.
(NOTE: in the interview Bricklin mistakenly says $400/kg which would mean the battery pack alone would cost more than the car. He subsequently clarifies his comment by referring to $400/ kWh or a much more affordable $6,000 per pack, which if achievable presents him with a different, a potentially more lucrative business opportunity than just selling and servicing cars, which he alludes to next in the interview)
"We made a joint venture with Electrovaya and we're going to make this technology available, he said.
"The real story is not the car. The real story, as far as I am concerned, is we are setting up an infrastructure of 250 of the finest automobile dealers out there who are going to set up an exclusive outlet called the Visionary Vehicles Electric Outlet. And when you walk into that outlet, you're going to buy vehicles that not only Visionary Vehicles has designed and caused to be built but you're also going to have cars and three-wheelers that have been built by other people, or developed by other people with the similarity being the technology in each of these vehicles will be the same."
He explains that there are two key reasons for this. The first is the commonality of components will ensure that the price will continue to come down over time. The second is to assuage any public concerns about the reliability of the technology. The underlying drive technology, regardless of the original vehicle manufacturer will be warranted by Visionary Vehicles.
Bricklin then shifted focus to talk about three-wheel vehicles he had recently previewed and driven. While he wouldn't share names at this point, he said he was very impressed with one vehicle in particular which will be an "adorable" two-passenger vehicle that will get between 200-300 mpg and cost around $16,000.
Besides now having penned a JV with Electrovaya for the battery, Visionary Vehicles has also identified their electric motor and engine manufacturers and expects to announce those agreements in the next 30 days or so.
Also nearing consummation are agreements with companies who will build complete drive system and assembly final vehicle. Bricklin has decided he wants to do it in the United States and he stated he would be announcing those agreements in the near future.
Beyond his dealerships and his S-Class Mercedes-like electric, plug-in hybrid, Bricklin's even grander vision is to also become a financial, as well as manufacturing resource, for the development of other promising motor vehicles and technologies.
He also mentions a conversation he had with GM Co-Chairman Bob Lutz at the Detroit Auto Show. Lutz, who is now a huge champion of electric-drive vehicles, admitted to Bricklin that he still has a hard time pushing GM in the direct of EVs because the corporation has such a vested interest in its own technological base from engine plants to transmission plants. He can't just shutter them and move on.
But the bigger surprise for Bricklin in Detroit was how readily people now have accepted the notion that it is possible to build a S-Class-sized vehicle that will get 100 mpg. Just a couple years ago, few would have thought it possible.
"A big, big change has happened," in part, Bricklin says because of the efforts of publications like EV World. He also talked about the competing PHEVs on display in Detroit, citing how beautiful the Fisker Karma was. He also talked with BYD, the would-be Chinese PHEV carmaker, who main line of business is making cellphone batteries.
Bricklin responded to my question of where does he go from here by saying, "now it's just work." He has to line up the manufacturers for both the technology and OEMs who will want to incorporated VV's drive system into their vehicles. Once that's done, then has to start recruiting his network of dealerships. Some of the effort has already been done, but he's held off on a formal recruitment effort until all the other pieces are put in place.
Assuming he's successful, he will have the first chain of electric vehicle dealerships in America, and probably the world. He's built dealership networks before and he already has a prominent U.S. import dealer on his board, Jamie Offenberg, who has signed up for four territories and traveled extensively with Bricklin.
He spoke at some length near the end of the call about his recent involvement with a group of MIT students who are part of a larger, 30+ university consortium to engineer and develop a sub-US$20,000 "electric, plug-in hybrid" that will get 200 miles per gallon (1.17 L/100km). He invited a number of them to the Detroit Auto Show and he plans to provide the teams with some supplemental funding as appropriate, but more importantly help them distribute the vehicle when its ready.
The PulseCar pictured above spun out of the 2006 Vehicle Design Summit (VDS). The car was designed and built over a 9-week period and utilizes the same MIT developed battery chemistry that is used in A123 batteries. It's thee-wheeled design is typical of a new class of EVs now coming to the fore.
"I see them and the other universities being the incubator for the executives for the 21st century automobile world."
Bricklin noted that it isn't just the vehicles that will have to change but also the mentality of the people running the car companies. He sees those people coming from the likes of the VDS consortium.
Be sure to listen to the interview in its entirety using either of the two MP3 players above, or feel free to download the entire program to our computer for transfer to favorite MP3 player.