Over the past 19 years, the Think electric car was created, nearly shut down, sold off from local investors to auto giant Ford Motor Co. and back again, nearly shut down once more and resurrected, again, to begin building a global strategy.
Looking at the history of Think, some might say that it's easier to create an electric car than it is to create a profitable electric-car company, said Richard Canny, CEO of Think North America and Think Global.
But speaking June 16 at Automotive News' Green Car Conference in Novi, Canny said Think is about to become just that the company is expected to turn a profit in 2011. The electric-car maker is not the only company thinking beyond the environmental aspects of the color green. Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. expects to begin making money from its all-electric Leaf within the first generation of that car, said Brian Carolin, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Nissan North America Inc. in Smyrna, Tenn.
We believe there is a sustainable business model [for electric cars].
The Leaf will go on sale in the U.S. by the end of this year. Think, based in Oslo, Norway, will begin selling its Finland-made, plastic-bodied Think City in the U.S. in the fourth quarter of 2010, and will expand production to Elkhart, Ind., in 2011.
The highest-profile all-electric vehicle, or EV, also hits the road this year when General Motors Corp.'s Chevrolet Volt goes on sale.
Electric and hybrid electric cars are becoming a reality, rather than an engineering exercise. But Ernst & Young's Mike Hanley, based in Detroit, warned that sales growth will be gradual, and long-term success in the marketplace will require the auto industry to make sure it launches these new vehicles cleanly.
It won't take over the world overnight, but they are part of a reshaping of the industry unlike anything we've seen in decades, said Hanley, global automotive leader for data analysis.
In a new global survey, Ernst & Young found that Chinese car buyers are most open to electric and partially electric hybrid vehicles, with 47 percent of those surveyed saying they would consider buying one as soon as they are available. By contrast, only 8 percent of U.S. car buyers were interested in an immediate pur- chase, while 70 percent said they would wait until electric cars are well-established.
That shows there is a potential market, Hanley said, but one that must be developed carefully.
Making a business case for electric vehicles must balance style and technical aspects such as the performance of lithium-ion batteries using thermoplastic films at their core and plastics for liquid cooling ducts and tubes along with plastic-intensive connectors and wiring.
A zero-emission vehicle that sits unsold on a dealer's lot does not help the environment, said Nancy Gioia, global electrification director for Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford.
Drivers say they worry most about whether a 100-mile range will be sufficient. However, day-to-day users of BMW AG's test fleet of all-electric Mini cars complained most about the lack of a back seat, which was removed to make room for batteries, said Rich Steinberg, manager of electric vehicle operations and strategy for Munich-based BMW's North American unit.
Think believes it will fill an immediate demand for lightweight and reliable electric cars. The long development process for the current-generation Think City ensures that the car is reliable, Canny said, with only five to 10 moving parts, reducing the need for continued service calls.
Some of Think's cars have been on the road for more than 10 years, and since its new infusion of cash from a team of international investors, including Ener1 Inc., the company has moved toward global possibilities.
Ener1 subsidiary EnerDel just started supplying its lithium-ion battery packs to the Think City, made in Uusikaupunki, Finland. EnerDel also is investing $237 million at its Indianapolis factory, where it will make batteries for the North American-made Think City.
Think also has signed a deal with Switzerland's largest retailer, Migros, to establish a sales operation there for the Think City. Migros has already completed a sale of a 60-car fleet to an ecotourism business.
Every decision on a Think City has been made for a purpose-built [electric vehicle], Canny said. We don't have to go back and try to figure out where to place batteries.
Those decisions include a lightweight body made by pressure forming coextruded acrylic styrene acrylonitrile/ABS.
Think plans to take advantage of existing plastics molders around Elkhart as it ramps up production.
But future EV competitors are taking different approaches to their vehicles. Tokyo-based Nissan will bring much of the initial production for the Leaf in-house in Japan, and in Smyrna, Tenn., where the firm is investing $1.8 billion on a battery plant and production line.
Ford and GM are creating their own battery-pack facilities for their electric vehicles. BMW has even created a joint venture SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers LLC of Moses Lake, Wash. with carbon-fiber specialist SGL Group to produce the raw carbon fiber that will go into interior and exterior panels for the future Megacity all-electric BMW, expected to launch in 2015.
That is a lot of investment for the auto industry as a whole, Ford's Gioia said, but the industry also expects there to be real returns on that money. Ford estimates that by 2020, 10-25 percent of its total sales will come from electrified vehicles including EVs and hybrids.
Green vehicles are not a science project, nor a charitable donation, she said. They are a business proposition.
But if U.S. automakers flub their introduction like they did with diesel engines in the 1970s, when those cars earned a reputation for poor performance and poor aesthetics, everything could fall apart, she added.
You only get one chance to make a first impression, and we want electrified vehicles to make a good one.
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