Friday, April 18, 2008

Feel the Electricity

Because you can't drive it:
Tesla and more than two dozen other start-up companies — most based in California and backed by piles of venture capital — are in a feverish race to develop a viable, electricity-powered alternative to the internal combustion engine. Electric cars, they argue, offer less pollution and noiseless operation for a fraction of the per-mile cost of traditional cars, while weaning drivers off oil.

Yet even environmentalists and investors who want to see these companies succeed question whether they have the know-how or leadership to replace the nation's gasoline fleet. Many of these companies seem bogged down fighting lawsuits, issuing breathless press releases, pummeling their rivals on blogs and bickering internally.

...."It's very cute for people out of Silicon Valley to want to bolt an electric motor to a chassis," said Ray Lane, managing partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which has invested in two start-ups: Irvine's Fisker Automotive and Think! of Norway. "But that's a long way from actually making a real car."

....Ontario, Calif.-based Phoenix plans to mate a Korean SsangYong pickup with a battery that can be charged in as little as 10 minutes.

Faced with production costs that suppliers say are more than double the truck's $47,000 retail price, the company cut ties with its motor supplier and engineering firm last year, leading both to sue.

....Santa Rosa-based Zap has repeatedly made promises it hasn't fulfilled. The publicly held company sells electric scooters and low-speed, three-wheel cars, and CEO Steven Schneider says Zap plans to sell a highway-legal three-wheeler starting next year.

Online stock-trading message boards accuse Zap of operating as a "pump-and-dump" shop that attempts to raise its stock temporarily by aligning itself with hot transportation trends. Schneider denied that, saying "moving the stock around doesn't help us."

The company has put out 26 news releases this year, and last year issued one headlined, "Zap not acquired or bombed by warplanes according to news reports." In the past several years, it has announced plans to sell a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle, an ethanol vehicle and a 644-horsepower electric sports sedan. None has materialized.

Zap is in litigation over its 2005 attempt to sell Daimler's Smart Car in the U.S. without a license from the automaker. It also faces nearly a dozen unrelated lawsuits, including fraud and breach of contract.

In the past four years, Zap's stock price has gyrated between 26 cents and almost $5. It hit its 2008 high of 89 cents in January, shortly after announcing it had created an "electric car made for iPod" — one of its low-speed models with an MP3 input jack. The shares are now around 50 cents.

"We put out a lot of news because it's a vicious market and we need to remain in the news," Schneider said. "Shareholders call screaming, 'We want news, we want news,' and so we give it to them."

....The start-ups "mistakenly believe that they have the problems all worked out," said David Patterson of Mitsubishi, which is developing its own electric car for sale in Japan next year. "They're butting up against some of the biggest challenges of the auto industry itself."

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