Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Nissan Leaf’ Category

photo: Todd Woody

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

The landscape of Silicon Valley is littered with technology pioneers who were a little too ahead of their time and failed to cash in, either because the market wasn’t ready or because competitors swooped in and commercialized their breakthroughs.

As the first mass-market electric cars hit showrooms, the question is whether Think, the Norwegian electric automaker, has now been early to the party twice.

Back in the late 1990s, Ford acquired a majority share of Think, invested $100 million, and produced a two-seater urban runabout called the City. The car was sold in Norway and was a familiar sight on San Francisco Bay Area streets at the turn of the century, where it was leased to residents as part of a pilot project that allowed drivers to charge up at Bay Area Rapid Transit stations. (Among those who drove a Think: Google co-founder Sergey Brin.)

We all know the rest of the story: Low oil prices and California’s abandonment of its zero-emission mandate killed off the electric car. Ford ditched Think, which eventually filed for bankruptcy.

In 2006, a Norwegian professor and entrepreneur named Jan-Olaf Willums and a group of investors revived Think to manufacture a next-generation battery-powered City. When I visited Think in Oslo in 2007, Willums promoted a vision of the electric car as not an isolated hunk of metal (or plastic, in the City’s case) but as an internet-enabled transportation service that interacted with the power grid — and you — through your mobile phone.

“We want to sell mobility,” Willums told me. “We don’t want to sell a thing called the Think.”

Production of the new City began in late 2008, and there are now some 2,500 of the highway-ready cars on the road in Norway and elsewhere in Europe.

But as Think prepares to enter the United States market — the company plans to assemble the City in Indiana — it’s searching for space in a parking lot crowded with competitors which have embraced, to varying degrees, Willums’ vision.

When I test-drove the Chevrolet Volt in May, General Motors executives proudly showed how you could check on the car’s battery charger and communicate with the vehicle through your iPhone or Blackberry. The Nissan guy riding shotgun in the electric Leaf I drove in July did the same.

So how does Think compete against those deep-pocketed competitors offering four-and-five-seat sedans?

I recently talked to Barry Engle, Think’s newest chief executive, about the company’s strategy now that the electric auto age has at last arrived. (Like his immediate predecessor, Richard Canny, Engle was a longtime Ford executive.)

“This is a company that for many years was this lone voice in the wilderness trying to convince people that they had a better idea,” says Engle. “I don’t know if the world was quite ready for what we have. But wow, a lot has changed here over the past year or so.”

Engle stresses that Think is not out to compete with GM and Nissan in the U.S., but will focus on a niche market — urbanites who want a small, easily maneuverable electric car.

“We don’t delude ourselves that we are a full-fledged manufacturer with a full line of products,” he says. “We’re uniquely positioned in the marketplace as few have expressed interest in what we do well, a city car.”

Such cars are popular in Europe’s densely packed cities, where electric cars are exempt from high registration and congestion charges. Then there’s a huge potential market in Asia’s megacities.

And if American city-dwellers start to downsize their rides and go electric at the same time, then Think will have arrived right on time.

Read Full Post »

photo: Ford

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

Bummed that you don’t live in one of the select cities that will be the first to get the electric Nissan Leaf or the Chevrolet Volt next month? Or you do live in one of those early-adopter municipalities and want an electric ride but don’t like either car?

Well, if you’re willing to wait another year, the electric Ford Focus will be rolling into town. Twenty towns, to be exact. Ford on Monday announced that in late 2011, a battery-powered version of its compact car will be sold in — drum roll, please — Atlanta, Austin, and Boston as well as Houston, Chicago, and New York.

Denver, Detroit, and Orlando will get the Focus along with Raleigh and Durham, N.C. and Richmond, Va., and Washington, D.C. Out West, Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, and Tucson are on the list.

Then there are the usual suspects: San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland.

“Markets were chosen based on several criteria, including commuting patterns, existing hybrid purchase trends, utility company collaboration and local government commitment to electrification,” Ford said in a statement.

“Ford wants to build on this enthusiasm by making our first all electric passenger vehicle available in as many pilot markets as possible,” Mark Fields, Ford’s president of the Americas, said in a statement.

“This is the first step in rolling out the Focus Electric. As the country continues to build up its electric vehicle infrastructure and demand for the Focus Electric grows, Ford will continue to evaluate additional markets and consider making this vehicle available in more cities across the country.”

The electric version of its existing Focus will be powered by a lithium ion battery that will give the car an estimated range of 100 miles. That’s the same range that Nissan is advertising for the Leaf. The Chevrolet Volt will travel about 40 miles on a charge before a small gasoline engine kicks in to generate electricity.

Read Full Post »