DUSSELDORF, GERMANY — Efforts to commercialize a radical new rotomolded car have hit a financial pothole and careened off course.
Norway's Pivco AS, designer and manufacturer of the acclaimed developmental electric vehicle known as the Th!nk, shut its doors Oct. 30 after declaring bankruptcy. The action — similar to declaring Chapter 11 status in the United States — came just as the eight-day K'98 plastics trade fair ended in Dusseldorf, where Pivco's car created a buzz from its prominent display on the stand of Denmark-based resin producer Borealis A/S.
Pivco — which stands for Personal Independent Vehicle Co. — officially launched the two-seater Th!nk on Oct. 1, at the European Electric Vehicle Show in Brussels, Belgium.
The 40-person Pivco conceived the rotomolded car concept during the oil crisis of the mid-1970s and, after an early, abortive attempt, has been actively developing Th!nk for the past seven years with financial assistance from the Norwegian government.
A report in the Sept. 18 edition of the Engineer, a British publication, said Pivco has invested about £12 million ($19.9 million) in the project since 1991, with the Norwegian government supplying about one-quarter of those funds. It added that the state planned to contribute half of a further £11 million ($18.3 million) in funds during the next year. But Norway's government apparently pulled the plug on at least some of that expected investment, leaving Pivco strapped for cash and precipitating the current crisis.
According to information on its Web site (www.think.no), Pivco is owned by its chairman, Jan Otto Ringdal, and several Norwegian institutional investors.
Repeated attempts to confirm financial information with Pivco Chief Executive Officer Per Lilleng and other senior company officials were unsuccessful.
The company previously had said its manufacturing arm, Pivco Nordon AS, planned to begin producing the cars commercially next year at its plant in Aurskog, on the northern outskirts of Oslo, for the domestic market. The firm also has been discussing possible production licensing agreements in other markets, including with Dongfeng Motor Corp. in China.
Pivco initially planned to lease its cars to private businesses, local authorities and government agencies to develop integrated, public-transport commuter systems. It had announced plans to make 1,500 vehicles in 1999 before ramping up production to 5,000 vehicles a year by 2001, primarily to serve the Scandinavian market.
News of Pivco's bankruptcy was met with dismay and disappointment as far away as California, where San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit district has extensively tested a model of the environmentally friendly commuter car and had high hopes for its future.
``I was looking forward to Pivco's next-generation vehicle — we were supposed to see them next spring,'' said Victoria Nerenberg, manager of technology and business alliances for BART in Oakland, Calif. ``We need more Pivco vehicles. I'm very disheartened about what's happened,'' she said in a Nov. 3 telephone interview.
``The Pivco car was called the City Bee in California,'' said Martin Bernard, executive director of the Oakland-based National Station Car Association. ``It's a really good car to drive. Some 45 of them were in California, the rest were in Europe.
``It's too good an idea to die. It's a real shame the company couldn't get financing. The car was proven to be successful in California. I hope someone can fill the void left now,'' Bernard said.
Funding for the California demonstrations amounted to $1.48 million and came from BART, Bay Area Air Quality Management District, Pacific Gas & Electric, and the California Energy Commission. The tests began in October 1995.
BART is leasing 45 vehicles from Green Motor Works in North Hollywood, Calif., for use by commuters. But that program ends Dec. 31 when the testing limit expires. Federal law requires that experimental vehicles be destroyed or returned to their manufacturer after the testing period unless they are approved for use by U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The Pivco vehicle combines the innovation of Chrysler Corp.'s Composite Concept Vehicle with the quirky, bulbous design of Volkswagen's new Beetle — but with a twist. Whereas the Chrysler CCV features four large, structural panels injection molded from glass-reinforced PET, Pivco rotationally molds six of Th!nk's body panels from a metallocene-catalyzed, unmodified grade of high density polyethylene supplied by Borealis.
It molds the single roof panel from ABS resin, according to company literature. These precolored panels then are mounted on a steel subframe and an aluminum upper frame.
The plastic panels on each car weigh less than a combined 200 pounds, according to Torbjjrn Aanonsen, Pivco's senior project engineer for research and development.
Aanonsen, interviewed at Borealis' K-show booth Oct. 24, said Pivco created the first fully functional prototype for use at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, France, where 10 cars performed successfully in conditions as cold as -22§ F. He said that car, which sported an all-aluminum frame, since has been totally redesigned to make it easier to manufacture.
Today's two-seater car is powered by a 20-module nickel-cadmium battery that accounts for more than a quarter of the car's 2,050 pounds. The car has a top speed of 56 mph and has a driving range of 62 miles before recharging. It takes six to eight hours to fully recharge, but requires only a standard household electrical outlet.
Rotomolding offers both limitations and opportunities, according to Aanonsen.
``Thermal expansion is an important design factor,'' he said, noting that different-colored Th!nk cars swell and shrink differently in the heat. And Pivco has developed several molded-in body colors, including dark blue, dark red, urban green, yellow and sandstone brown.
The car's textured finish comes straight out of the mold, which offers huge savings over conventional cars by eliminating the costly painting process. However, the lack of a glossy finish could hamper market acceptance, according to one independent plastics rotomolding and design expert.
Glenn Beall of Glenn Beall Plastics Ltd. of Libertyville, Ill., who saw Th!nk at K'98, said car buyers typically prefer shiny finishes. ``These definitely are matte-finish cars — whether the public accepts that remains to be seen.''
The other challenge facing companies wanting to rotomold car components is the limited number of materials available for that process, Beall said.
``But,'' he added, ``the positives about the car blow me away.'' He pointed out the vast design and manufacturing flexibility offered by rotomolding, including the ability to mold a hollow car body containing a gas tank, several other fluid tanks, a glove compartment, side rails for wiring, and various heating and ventilation ducts — all in a single piece.
Rotomolders also can make large parts at a fraction of the tooling cost, which Beall said makes rapid changes in vehicle models, shapes and colors more cost effective.
``The capabilities of what could be done with rotational molding are endless,'' he said. ``There are people somewhere in the world who believe rotational molding is suitable for this kind of application. That's why [the Pivco] car was so important.
``I hope this can be resurrected,'' Beall said. ``It's a great idea that shouldn't die.''
But Beall will get his wish only if new investors step forward soon.
BART's Nerenberg said: ``We're really rooting for a U.S. manufacturer to get involved now. It would open a lot of doors for the company and for the [electric car] industry.
``Unfortunately,'' she added, ``there's no incentive in the U.S. now to buy electric vehicles — gasoline is cheaper than bottled water, and elected officials haven't regulated emissions.''
For his part, Pivco's Aanonsen, who has spent the past 21/2 years working on the Th!nk project, remains optimistic that Pivco will rise again.
``In projects like this, it's always a risk — you know that from day one,'' he said in a Nov. 4 telephone interview from his home in Norway. But, he predicted, this one ``will not go down the drain. It's gone so far, it's more or less impossible to stop.''