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
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
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. …