The Wall Street Journal headline earlier this week was pretty stark: “Car Battery Start-Ups Fizzle.” The basic point is that battery plants built with federal grants got ahead of the still-emerging electric vehicle market. In other words, there’s a lot of battery capacity and, so far, few cars. It doesn’t look like President Obama is going to get his 1 million EVs by 2015.
The feds were overly optimistic about the electric timetable. It’s going to take a while before there’s an electric in every driveway, though I definitely think that will happen. Most of us don’t know much about the cars, and we’ve never heard of the many, often-minuscule start-ups that are starting to put their vehicles on the road.
Both the start-up Coda and the more established Tesla Motors have opened stores in malls (see Tesla's at right), aimed not just at selling cars but also educating the public about what electric cars are and how they work. Tesla has gotten more than 600,000 people through its seven existing "new design" stores, and that's a lot of education going on.
This week, General Electric — a big supporter of EVs because of its WattStation EV chargers (some of them solar powered) — opened a 6,000-square-foot Vehicle Innovation Center designed to teach people about electrics, as well as natural gas, hydrogen and propane cars. The primary target is fleets, and indeed they are likely to be the EV's biggest customers in the early days. We probably need more of these, all over the country. The first one is in Eden Prairie, Minn.
Ever heard of Wheego? Missed the Super Bowl commercial? That’s because they didn’t have one. Atlanta-based Wheego is tiny, with less than 10 employees. It builds both the Whip, a low-speed vehicle (LSV) that can cruise around gated communities and serve meter maids, and the LiFe, a full-scale, highway-capable electric car. The Smart-look-a-like car is sourced from China, with electric components added in California.
So far, Wheego has sold “a few dozen” LiFes, says Susan Nicholson, a vice president and spokesperson. For any other company, that would be fatal, but Wheego didn’t gamble big on government funding, and it isn’t accruing unsold inventory.
Meet Asma Henry (left), the very first Wheego LiFe owner. In the small world department, I discovered she's also a good friend of my brother, and an avid reader of my MNN articles, which helped spark her interest in electric cars and the Wheego. "I used to drive a Volvo, and told my mechanic back in 2010 that I wanted my next car to be electric," she said. "He told me about a local dealership in Atlanta that was selling the Wheego. When I bought the car, we had a little ceremony because I was the first buyer, and I said that I work as a tuberculosis researcher and clean air is important."
Henry says the LiFe "has been very good, but a bit rattly. You can't drive it really long distances, but I took it to the airport a few times and it was fine. My husband and I just really believe in electric cars. We just wish there were more charging stations in Fort Collins, Colorado, where we've recently moved. The car is on a transporter on its way out here."
As CEO Mike McQuary explained to me, Wheego is building cars as it gets orders. And it’s engaging in some interesting guerrilla marketing. “People are realizing that there are a lot of creative ways to use the Wheego LiFe — both as a specialty-use vehicle, and a marketing attention getter,” he told me from China, where he’s drumming up new business. Right now, car sales are on hold until Wheego can get a federal waiver exempting it from needing electronic stability control. But the cars are trickling out.
The Oklahoma City police department has taken delivery of four Whip LSVs for use in parking enforcement. They don’t have to hit the highway, and with 40-mph on the top end, they’re not going to be chasing speeders. The air-conditioned LSVs replace open-air electrics. “They’ve got some weather in Oklahoma,” Nicholson told me.
Wheego is on Oklahoma’s radar because of a now-rescinded state law there allowed a 50 percent income tax credit on electrics. People there were buying LSVs for an incredible $3,000, and several hundred have been sold.
The Whip is indeed great for giving out parking tickets and meter reading, and now Wheego is marketing them that way. It has some leftover 2010 LSVs it can let go for maybe $11,000 (they list for $19,000). The competition is the Gem, a glorified golf cart. How much could a full page in Police Fleet Manager magazine cost?
There’s more. A highway-ready Wheego is being offered as a prize in a contest offered by the GTE Federal Credit Union. The lucky winner will be announced in October. Here’s a video about it:
There are a few catches. You have to be 18 and live in Florida. And you have to take out a GTE home loan. Details, details.
The contest (right) was the brainchild of energetic Florida-based dealership Suncoast Electric Vehicles, which sells everything from golf carts to Vantage battery trucks and vans. Richard Nimphie, who owns Suncoast, told me, "EV buyers today are a relatively small niche, and the cost of entry into the market is relatively high. Still, a fairly significant amount of people in surveys we've done have shown interest in eventually buying an electric car. So what we've been doing is taking the car where those people are."
And how. Suncoast has shown up at Saturday morning farmers markets, at kids' events at the University of South Florida, at screenings of "Revenge of the Electric Car," at the downtown Tampa clean air fair, and the AAA green vehicles initiative. It even has a mutually satisfying alliance with the Salvador Dali Museum, which wrapped a Wheego LiFe in Dali images.
"We can't compete with the General Motors of this world for Super Bowl ads," Nimphie said, "but we can answer questions and explain how EVs work. There are a lot of misconceptions out there, including range anxiety. We get people to look at how much they actually drive each day, and usually it's 15 to 25 miles — well within an EV's range."
Wheego now has 22 dealers, not all of them as energetic as Suncoast (left), and a half dozen more pending once it starts selling cars again. Suncoast is the most successful Wheego dealer, and has orders for a dozen LiFes to be delivered soon.
This isn’t the way General Motors or Ford sell cars. It isn’t going to get us to a million EVs by 2015, but it’s a start. And, as the Journal points out, the starting gate is where we are.