Frayed Cords in Electric Car World

The process of building an electric car is—as one Silicon Valley venture capitalist put it—not a matter of “bolting an electric motor to a chassis.” That’s even truer for a hybrid that plugs in for a jolt of extra power. It takes lots of money, talented people and the right materials. Even with all the ingredients, it is not always a smooth road. Take the latest news rocking the relatively small world of electric vehicles.

  • Tesla Motors is suing rival Fisker Coachbuild for doing “substandard” design work on the fledgling car company’s second car—codenamed White Star—while Fisker was keeping its good designs for its own model, the Karma. Tesla’s suit also adds that some of its proprietary technology was pilfered during the period the two companies were working together.
  • This follows Tesla’s numerous delays in getting its first model to market. The initial roadster was delivered in February and production numbers for the year have been scaled back as the price has risen and some features have been scratched.
  • Fisker showed a sexy plug-in hybrid concept at the Detroit Auto Show this year and promises to deliver it next year at a price point of $80,000. The company, which is partnering with Quantum Technologies to produce the vehicles, has raised only $20 million, which is far short of what’s needed to get the exotic vehicle to market in any quantity.
  • Michael Papp, the head of Spark EV, is in jail after being charged with failing to deliver 14 EVs for which he was paid $100,000. His retort is that he is filing for bankruptcy—for the fourth time—but that the cars will be delivered. His website shows a variety of Chinese-built EVs supposedly ready for delivery, but the chatter on electric car websites is that he has never delivered a vehicle.
  • Phoenix Motorcars has been planning to sell a Korean Ssanyong EV pickup and promising to deliver an electric SUV soon afterward. The vehicle’s $47,000 retail cost appeared to be moving up when the company cut its ties with its motor supplier and engineering firm, Boshart Engineering. Boshart is now offering its own version of the Korean electric truck EV, and is suing Phoenix for reneging on its contract. Phoenix ended up delivering no trucks in 2007, but hopes to make its first deliveries in May 2008 after reengineering the vehicle’s motor and drivetrain.
  • Zap, a company that has been selling a variety of electric scooters, bikes and neighborhood electric vehicles for several years, has hit similar bumps in its road to being a credible electric car supplier. It announced a variety of vehicles over the years, including a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, a multi-fuel vehicle from Brazil and a high-horsepower EV sedan, but so far has delivered only a three-wheeled electric vehicle called the Xebra with a 40 mph top speed and a 25-mile range. The company also is in litigation over its attempt last year to import and federalize Daimler Smart cars.

The bottom line on this part of the electric car story—as companies like Nissan, Mitsubishi and General Motors announce their latest plug-in vehicles—is that selling an electric car is much easier than actually building and delivering one.

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  • ex-EV1 driver

    Regarding Tesla: There have definitely been delays but what features have been scratched? As far as I know they’ve only added the feature of a single speed gearbox that will get it a faster 1/4 mile speed. Everything else looks pretty close to what they originally promised 2 years ago.
    I also don’t know of any scaling back because of price. From what I understand, they’ve taken orders with huge downpayments for over 1000 cars over less than 2 years. That’s about 1.3 sales per day including weekends, not too shabby for a $100K car that isn’t even in production yet.
    There will undoubtedly be bumps in the path to sustainable transportation but we’ve got to keep trying.

  • Anonymous

    The single-speed trans was a downgrade from the original 2-speed that offered more top end. They had to get a waiver to offer non-NHTSA compliant passenger airbags. Price has drifted up from 92K to 98K. Their order bank was at 900 when they finally started production last month and they’ve already admitted they can’t build that many through the end of the year. Great effort, but they’ll have trouble sustaining, much less growing the company at those volumes and still need to generate a tremendous amount of cash to fund the White Star project. As was mentioned in the story, selling the EVs is not the problem–building and delivering them is!

  • Skeptic

    Come on everyone, sing with me … Vaporware!

  • 38MPG

    Conventional car companies take 4-5 years just redesign one of their models. Here Tesla has come out with a completely new vehicle and a completely new technology within that time period. I would say, Tesla’s achievement so far is nothing short of spectacular.

  • Collin Burnell

    C’mon Skeptic!!!

    Are you really THAT much of a skeptic? 🙂

    They have a handful of Roadsters on the road already don’t they?

    It’s not vaporware if you can drive the darn thing, right???

    Someday, making an electric vehicle for production will be commonplace, but for now I say it’s a heroic and highly commendable endeavor worthy of praise and compassion

    That’s the song I want to sing!. La, la, la… La, la, la…

  • Alex Campbell

    Haven’t large automakers and government program promised cleaner car technologies and various models without delivering for decades? I remember around 2002 some memos were leaked from high up execs who said hybrids would never be commercially viable, now they are saying all cars in the future will be hybrid.

  • ex-EV1 driver

    On May 6, Tesla will be opening up their Los Angeles showroom. I understand that they’ll have at least 1 working model of their “vaporware” on display.
    Everyone is welcome to stop by and make their own call.
    I’ve been lucky enough to have driven their “vaporware” twice and it sure runs more like a supercar than something that doesn’t exist.
    Sure there have been challenges getting it on the road. No one ever said it would be easy. Many have said it would be impossible for them to get as far as they have. Only a little time will tell if they can do it all the way.

  • Armand

    This whole electric car thing puts the main aspect of all these problems into the lime light 100% crystally clear…human greed.

    This is a glimpse of how the auto industry, among many others, actually works and why see the crappy, substandard, poor mileage, pointless cars we have available. Watching this battle in the electric car industry is a clear-glass view of how everything else runs.

    And there are idiots out there who think “market forces” and “consumer choices” are what govern what we get. Get a life. You have no choice.

    The people in these industries are so money hungry, so arrogant, so self-centered that they’ll market a piece of fecal matter to you and you’ll eat it.

  • Brooke

    This IS a HOT CAR! dude I want it!! The best part is that it’s ELECTRIC! IT’S ELECTRIC! oh and by the way COLLIN BURNELL, I totally agree with you. it is worthy of praise. ttyl 🙂 <3

  • Brooke

    OMG its been a full minute! WHOA 🙂

  • Ted McNamara

    We are in a transition period where new technology is replacing old technology. There will be winners and loosers over the next
    few decades. In the end, electric vehicles will be the winner, because we have the infrastructure mostly in place, or easily upgradable. And there are many ways to produce electricity.
    And the money we spend on this transition will stay mostly in this country, and not go overseas to fund our enemies. Batteries for these vehicles, rechargable and fuel cell, will improve, and the cost will come down.

  • Anonymous

    just think, the next generation will have cleaner air , and water, we may even see cancer rates finaly DECLINE

  • Fraw

    I like the Q-Drive technology, powered by an innovative plug-in hybrid gasoline/electric motors. I have spotted it in one of the volkswagen blog.They said that the vehicle can run up to 50 miles (80 km) solely on battery power when fully charged. After the charged batteries deplete, the Karma converts to its hybrid engines, constantly switching between gasoline and electric motors.


    I am all for EV’s, however, there are serious down sides to them too, the main one is not driving distance is environmental. The number of batteries that those cars would be discarded could gianormous unless organic, biodegradable and compostable, 100% recyclable and/or reusable materials are used in future automobile batteries.
    Green automobiles should be build completely recyclable. we have the technology and the will as individuals to support an environmentally sound society, the US car industry should spearhead the industrial renaissance of the 21th century, green, reliable, and 100% recyclable. How about if we were paid a handsome sum recycling, our motor vehicles will retain a higher value as is the case of buying silver, platinum, copper, plastics, paper products, wood, aluminum, etc.
    Think of it as investing in your retirement portfolio a chunk of raw materials, as they continue to be used the value should continue to climb.


  • calvin

    @UC DAVIS: Li-Ion batteries _are_ recyclable, and a few automakers already have recycling programs in place, and even paying “bounties” for batteries to ensure they reach the recycling center.

    Welcome to the world of business. Building and delivering cars isn’t hard; finding honest and ethical business partners is. I mean, what does Fisker’s blatant conflict of interest have to do with EVs? Likewise with companies that are set up just to burn through venture capital and not deliver any products (ever heard of the Gizmondo?).

    Find me a single industry where there aren’t overoptimistic/unrealistic companies like Phoenix and con artists like Michael Papp, and I’ll grant you that this is something inherent about the EV/hybrid industry.

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