Silicon Valley green tech investor Vinod Khosla caused a stir recently when he dissed plug-in electric hybrid cars as “toys” that would not contribute much in the way of fighting global warming. The blogs were buzzing from red-faced EV enthusiasts taking umbrage at Khosla, who has made big bets on biofuels and is never shy at expressing his opinions on all matters green.
But an investment Khosla Ventures announced this week in EcoMotors, a Detroit startup developing a high-efficiency diesel engines, shows that the legendary venture capitalist is more eclectic when it comes to electrics than his public pronouncements might make him seem.
EcoMotors founders Peter Hofbrauer and John Coletti, veterans of Volkswagen and Ford (F) respectively, are engineering engines that they hope will achieve 100 miles per gallon, run on gasoline, diesel or biofuels and be used to power — wait for it — plug-in hybrid electric cars.
What drove Khosla to change his mind on hybrids? He didn’t, really. To understand why, we need to look under the hybrid hood. There are two types of hybrids. A parallel” hybrid contains two drive trains — an electric motor to power the car at low speeds for short periods of time, and a conventional gasoline engine for higher speeds. The Toyota (TM) Prius and Honda (HMC) Civic hybrid and most other hybrids on the road today are parallel hybrids. (A plug-in version would allow for a more powerful battery pack that could be recharged from a standard electrical outlet.)
In contrast, a series hybrid takes some of the complexity — and presumably the cost — out of the design by using only an electric drive train to propel the car while relying on a small internal combustion engine to power a generator that charges the battery and provides power to the electric motor when needed. The Chevrolet Volt, General Motor’s (GM) plug-in electric hybrid under development, is a series plug-in hybrid. And the EcoMotors’ engine will be designed for use in a series hybrid.
“He was referring to parallel hybrids,” says Khosla Partner’s Ford Tamer of his boss’s anti-hybrid comments made in a speech at an investor conference. “We do believe a series hybrid is the way to go. He was also referring to the fact that the hybrid platform is inherently an expensive platform.”
So is a series platform at this point, but Khosla’s vision is to drive that cost down by creating high-efficiency engines and batteries. Hence the investment in EcoMotors. And hence the hiring last September of Tamer, a former top executive at chipmaker Broadcom and a co-founder of another chip company, Agere (later acquired by Lucent). “I’ve been focused on the efficiency side of Khosla — engines, motors, turbines, even solar and batteries,” says Tamer, Khosla Ventures’ operating partner.
Khosla is the sole funder of EcoMotors – and no, Tamer won’t reveal the size of the investment – which officially launched this month and remains so stealthy it doesn’t even have a website yet.
Tamer says EcoMotors CEO Hofbrauer developed a high-efficiency engine under contract with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, of DARPA, for use in military vehicles. EcoMotors has now licensed the technology for commercial use.
Here’s how it works, as explained by Tamer: the EcoMotors engine is built of 2-cylindar “modules” that can be stacked depending on the need for power – one or two modules for a car, three or four for a big truck. “If you have two modules, you can shut down one module for city driving,” says Tamer. “But when you need to need to go uphill or need power for highway driving, you engage the second module. That gives you better fuel efficiency and reduces emissions.” (EcoMotors’ renderings of the engine’s design are above.)
With the recently enacted energy bill mandating automakers raise the average fuel efficiency of their fleets to 35 miles per gallon by 2020, EcoMotors aims to demo its first engine to potential customers by early 2009.
A plug-in electric hybrid drive train will be further down the road but Khosla Ventures already has made investments in companies developing components for such a system. One such startup is Seeo, a Berkeley, Calif.-based company whose website cryptically says it is “developing advanced materials to revolutionize electricity storage and delivery.” And Thursday morning, Khosla Ventures announced it had upped its investment in Transonic Combustion, a California startup developing fuel injection systems designed to increase fuel efficiency.
“Our belief is that we have to get a fuel-efficient, emissions-conscious diesel engine on its own,” Tamer says. “Then going to a hybrid becomes a bonus.”
One of Vinod Khosla’s mantras is that green technology must become cheap and scalable enough to be adopted in China and India, countries whose impact on climate change is monumental. In other words, a $25,000 plug-in hybrid doesn’t stand a chance against a Tata Nano, the Indian people’s car unveiled last week.
Remarks Tamer: “$2,500 will buy a Tata – that’s a DVD upgrade on a Lexus.”