We’re in Silicon Valley, and the setting is a nondescript industrial park. The office looks like all the rest, though it invariably has a garage attached to it. This is the scene for numerous electric vehicle (EV) startups, many of them headed by California tech refugees. I hear from them nearly every day now. It’s an entrepreneurial field day not seen since, well, the tech startups of the 1990s—which took place in exactly the same place.

The cast of characters and their ranking changes daily, but here is my listing of the eight that I think—right now—are most likely to make it (in roughly descending order):

Tesla Motors. What’s not to like about the ultra-sexy Tesla Roadster, which reaches 60 mph in 3.9 seconds on battery power alone? Well, there is that $109,000 price, but believe it or not it took relentless expense-cutting to get the materials cost down from $140,000 to the $80,000 it is now. So Tesla, which will introduce its four-door Model S in 2011, is finally poised to make money. “Combined with a steady production volume of 20 to 30 per week in the third quarter this year and a good take-up rate of the higher-priced Roadster Sport,” CEO Elon Musk said in June, “we expect to cross over into profitability next month.”

There’s also the $465 million that Tesla got through the federal advanced technology loan program, which will be used to produce the Model S, and also to build a powertrain plant in California. 

Bright Automotive. Bright doesn’t do sexy. Its vehicle is a plug-in hybrid panel van, intended for fleet use. Headed by John Waters, the guy who designed the battery pack for the General Motors EV-1 electric car, Bright has laser-like focus on just the fleet market, and is talking to big players like Coca-Cola. Launched just last year, the Bright team built its vehicle from the ground up in a year. On the road, the Bright Idea (which I have not yet seen) achieves a reported 100-mpg equivalent. Production is set to begin in 2012, with a target of 50,000 annually, but that’s pretty ambitious.

Brammo. There’s something about a distribution deal with Best Buy that gets people to take you seriously. This is a cool-looking electric motorcycle that can be fixed by the Geek Squad. The $12,000 Enertia, which has a lightweight carbon-fiber frame carrying lithium-iron-phospate batteries, weighs just 280 pounds. Fast it isn’t, with a top speed of 50 mph from its 18-horsepower electric motor, but Brammo is claiming the equivalent of 300 mpg. It recharges in three hours on regular house current. CEO Craig Bramscher says, “What we’re selling is a lot closer to consumer electronics than to transportation.” I second that emotion.

Fisker Automotive. Denmark-born Henrik Fisker is an industry veteran who knows how to create a business plan, in this case to finance the 2010 Karma, a Tesla-rivaling four-seat plug-in hybrid exotic with a 50-mile range on its battery pack, and the fuel economy equivalent of 100-mpg once the engine kicks in. The car, to be built in Finland, will sell for $87,900. If it’s a Tesla-like tiger on the road (I haven’t driven it) the Karma will have a good chance in the marketplace. Fisker thinks it will be producing 15,000 annually, and again that’s a big number. (Tesla has only delivered 500 cars so far.) Deposits are $5,000, but if you want the more-exclusive Karma S convertible that will be $25,000 please.

BYD. The fact that financier Warren Buffett bought into this Chinese company (10 percent for $230 million) caused a lot of people to sit up and take notice. And when BYD got a plug-in hybrid car on the market before any other world manufacturer, they noticed even more. I saw the car at the Detroit Auto Show, and the F3DM is not exactly showy, but on the other hand it can reportedly go 60 miles on a charge, and the one-liter gas engine recharges on the fly. BYD says it will come to the U.S. in 2011. BYD is not technically a startup, but cars are a relatively recent development for this world-leading battery company.


Think Global. This Norwegian company has had a fascinating history. From a startup in Norway it went to becoming part of Ford, but the automaker sold out in the 1990s. The company has had serious cash flow problems, but is reportedly soon to announce a reorganization plan that will include U.S. sales. Think’s major asset is a lightweight, plastic-bodied electric car with sodium or lithium-ion batteries (from a variety of manufacturers, including U.S.-based Ener1) that it has already started delivering in Europe. According to its website, “Think is getting closer to resuming production of the Think City and to honoring its commitment to start delivering vehicles to customers before the end of the year. Think’s customers are eagerly awaiting their new Think EV in cities across Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Austria and Spain.” Think is technically not a start-up either, but for the few cars it has ever sold its re-launch certainly counts as one.

Coda. I drove a Coda in Greenwich, Connecticut recently, my first time behind the wheel of a Chinese-made car. Coda’s Corolla-sized car is based on the Saibao sedan, with a big battery pack built by the Tianjin Lishen Battery Joint-Stock Company. Porsche Design Studio gave it a makeover (necessary, if the $45,000 asking price is to find buyers). The Coda reaches 60 mph in less than 11 seconds, is speed-governed at 80 mph, and has 100-mile range. CEO Kevin Czinger is a smart player, with a long business resume, and his car has cemented strong relationships with Chinese and European supplier that should make the car more than the sum of its parts. The plan is to sell 2,700 in 2010, and then ramp up to a full production capacity of 20,000 annually.

Wheego. This Atlanta-based startup makes the whimsically named Wheego Whip, a low-speed vehicle that’s not allowed on roads with speed limits of 35 mph or more. Unlike other LSVs, this $19,000 entry with 55 miles of range is fully finished, with four-wheel discs, air conditioning, a stereo and other amenities that take it beyond golf-cart status. There are reportedly 40,000 LSVs on American roads, but Wheego will soon introduce a fully road-worthy EV and that’s when the company could really become a player. CEO Mike McQuary is, like Elon Musk at Tesla, a former investor who liked what he saw. “The Whip is the best electric car in the world,” he says.

Also on MNN: 

• The charm of low-speed vehicles: Here comes the Wheego Whip.

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

Plugging in, taking off: Eight electric vehicle startups to watch
Don't be surprised if at least one of these companies becomes as big as (or bigger than) General Motors.