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Electric shock

By Jonathan Blum


John E. Waters, 48, got his start developing battery systems for GM's ill-fated mid-'90s electric vehicle, the EV1. For his new startup he rounded up 30 auto industry veterans, including former EV1 compatriots, who have a total of 200 years' experience at Chrysler and other top-tier auto manufacturers.

So what glamorous automotive niche do they hope to enter? Answer: electric delivery vans.

For all their blandness, delivery vehicles are the perfect place to test electric car technology. Delivery vans are usually based at a company's depot, so at the end of the day they are easily plugged in and recharged -- addressing critics' biggest complaint about all-electric automobiles. Ranges are limited, but proper scheduling and routing can resolve that problem.

What's more, by electrifying their fleets, companies could save 12¢ to 18¢ per mile (depending on the price of fuel). Assuming an average use of 80 to 100 miles a day, that's $3,600 per vehicle per year. So a company like Verizon, with something on the order of 35,000 vans, could save $125 million a year if its entire fleet went electric.

"Customers can use our technology to improve their bottom line," says Waters, who in January 2007 founded Bright Automotive in Anderson, Ind. and has raised more than $20 million in private capital.

In April 2009 the company announced its new IDEA delivery van to much fanfare. The vehicle gets 40 miles on a single charge and also features a standard hybrid battery that is recharged by a gasoline engine -- like a Prius. Running on gas, the IDEA fetches nearly 40 mpg, but critics claim it's not everything Waters claims.

"Technology alone does not sell these things," says Bryan Hansel, president of Smith Electric Vehicles U.S., the Kansas City-based arm of a British company that has made electric delivery vehicles, known in England as milk floats, since 1911. "The customers really do have to agree with the 'why' of an electric vehicle. The 'what' that you sell them happens later."

Bright Automotive argues that the environmental and economic benefits of a green fleet justify the steep up-front cost.

"We're replacing vehicles that get 10 to 12 mpg with vehicles that get 40 mpg," says company spokesman Lyle Shuey. "We're saving gas and carbon. It is a huge financial and brand differentiator."

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