“Be careful, that’s a $2 million vehicle!” Not only did I know it was worth that much, I was fully aware that the prototype plug-in hybrid I was about to drive represented the hopes, dreams and aspirations of a small team of Bright Automotive employees in Anderson, Indiana, a Rust Belt town that Detroit forgot (when General Motors cut 20,000 jobs). Michael Moore could have a field day there.

But hope is a muscle in Anderson, where a half-dozen companies (including battery company EnerDel) pursue battery-based strategies for weaning us off petroleum. Bright is a startup with a mission. CEO John Waters is just one of the employees who came over from the idealistic Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), which teaches energy efficiency and the virtue of “hypercars.”

Waters helped build the battery pack for the General Motors EV-1 (the subject of Who Killed the Electric Car?), introduced the first large-format lithium-ion battery set for the Segway, and was a founder of EnerDel, which now supplies batteries to the Think electric car and the glamorous Fisker plug-in hybrid.

But Waters’ baby is no $89,000 sports car. It’s not as sexy, but probably more important: The Bright Idea is a plug-in hybrid commercial delivery van that could cost $40,000 (with government battery rebates) and can carry a sheet of plywood flat in its abundant bed.

Bright was launched with the cooperation of Google.org, Alcoa and Johnson Controls, and the prospect of 40 miles of all-electric range has drawn the attention of Frito-Lay, Coca-Cola, FedEx, Staples and Pacific Gas & Electric—many of whom would become customers if and when the car launches. Some 25 companies representing a million delivery vehicles have kicked the tires on the plug-in hybrid.

The advantage of the Idea for big companies with huge delivery fleets is clear: It will be able to operate on 41 to 43 cents per mile, which is probably a dime less than the gas-fired competition. Multiply all those dimes over millions of miles. Companies could save $3,000 per vehicle per year.

There is only one Bright Idea, the one I drove. The 3,200-pound aerodynamic vehicle (which will be all-aluminum in production) is remarkably well finished for a prototype, with its only minor flaw being slightly kinky steering. I toured around Bright’s parking lot, because the Idea is not road-registered, and found it shifting smoothly from battery to gas-engine mode. The powerplant is likely to be a small Ford four-cylinder, and it will be complemented with a relatively small 13-kilowatt-hour battery pack.

Waters and Dave Lauzun, a Chrysler veteran who has overall responsibility for the Idea, emphasize that their van was engineered from the ground up as a plug-in hybrid, and the weight savings and aerodynamic design allow it to get by with a compact and inexpensive battery pack.

Lauzun showed me the 1/8th and half-size clay models from which the Idea was sculpted. The vehicle was created in a year of feverish activity, including the building of a plywood full-scale model held together with push-pins. “This is how we figured out to do a 70-30 split door,” said Lauzun.

The Idea team, many of them refugees from the Big Three, relished the chance to build their new vehicle from a clean sheet of paper. The major hurdle now is getting the Idea through final engineering, crash testing and manufacturing gear-up. That process would be helped enormously if Bright could get Department of Energy funding, which among startups has so far gone to Fisker ($528 million) and Tesla ($465 million).

“We’ve been politically outmaneuvered,” Waters says. “It is a very challenging bureaucratic environment.” DOE has awarded more than $8 billion from its $25 billion Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing loan program, so there’s still a possibility that funding will arrive. In the meantime, Bright is staying alive with an engineering division to convert gas vehicles to EVs and plug-in hybrids.

I admired some neat features of the Idea. Because delivery vans are mostly piloted solo, this one has a fold-down passenger seat that becomes a work table. And the carbon fiber rear bulkhead—usually an add-on for delivery vans—adds strength and stability.

“We want to change the world,” Waters says. “We brought this vehicle to Washington, D.C. to respond to the nation’s call, but now we’re losing faith in the process.” The Idea is a heartland product, 100 percent made in the U.S.A. And it’s got great prospects if it can get a timely lift.

Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

Is this the most eco-friendly delivery van in the world?
To get it into fleets at Coca-Cola, Frito-Lay and FedEx, the Indiana auto veterans at Bright Automotive are hoping for a federal loan. Our car blogger travels t