Entrepreneurs Rush to Develop Electric Cars

Article excerpt

By Gregory J. Wilcox

Los Angeles Daily News

LOS ANGELES _ Lon Bell is betting several million dollars that he can reinvent the electric car and in the process help a new industry take shape.

Early last year, Bell sold his remaining stake in the aerospace company he founded in 1967 to TRW Inc., using the profits to capitalize Amerigon Inc., a firm developing a prototype electric vehicle.

"It's a risk, but it's exciting and timely. And it's something that is potentially rewarding," Bell said, who's also president of Calstart, an electrichicle consortium.

These days he's got a lot of company. And competition.

Hundreds of large and small companies across the country are climbing aboard the electric vehicle bandwagon, rushing to develop a consumer friendly product that will be nearly pollutionee. They are trying to build an industry from scratch, creating jobs in their communities while putting the United States at the forefront of what some believe will be a worldwide market.

But designing and manufacturing electric vehicles will require major advances in technology, as well as government funding. To that end, many companies are forming consortia like Bell's, applying for millions of federal dollars that will start flowing from Washington later this summer.

There is some concern that infighting for this money could shortcircuit progress. For example, the U.S. Department of Transportation is preparing to disburse $12 million for electrical vehicle research among at least three and possibly more groups across the country. Twentyur groups applied and it's likely that the winners will duplicate one another's research to some degree, industry officials say.

"It's like flies going for meat," said David E. Cole, director of the University of Michigan Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation, which forecasts industry trends. "Money really brings everybody out of the woodwork, (so) we've got to be very careful how we distribute it."

He gets no argument from Paul MacCready, chairman and founder of Monrovia, Calif.-based Aerovironment Inc., the company that developed General Motors Corp.'s electric vehicle, the Impact, which is expected to be on the market by midcade.

"It's called a feeding frenzy," MacCready said.

Electrical vehicles made their first big splash in the '70s when the nation's gasoline supply was being choked by the Arab oil embargo. They were promoted as a way to wean Americans from their dependence on foreign oil and General Motors said that it planned to market a vehicle by 1980.

But the concept didn't catch on. Consumers shunned it because the electric cars available at that time had limited range and their performance didn't compare with gasolinewered vehicles.

Lacking a market, major manufacturers were unwilling to invest heavily in electric car research or production.

What's different today? Entrepreneurs like Bell say several things, including the creation of a small market by legislative mandate.

California has passed clean air legislation that calls for 2 percent of the cars sold in the state by major manufacturers in 1998 _ about 40,000 vehicles _ to be powered by electricity. That number jumps to 10 percent by 2003.

And Japan pledges a similar commitment to electric vehicles, prompting Bell to estimate there will be 110,000 of the cars on the road worldwide by 1998.

But the industry still is struggling with a technological hangover from the 1970s: battery development. Batteries are the Achilles heel of electric cars and research in this area so far is getting the biggest government grants.

It also typifies the uncertainty over which direction the industry should take.

For example, Troy, Mich.-based Ovonic Battery Co. last month received an $18.5 million contract from the United States Advanced Battery Consortium to research a nickle_metaldride system that could give vehicles two or three times the range of current technology. …