All Electric Cars – The Impact of the Little Guys

by John Voltz
Recently, I made a small diversion from my walk to the office in San Francisco and took a ride in a Wheego. The Wheego was being showcased at Justin Herman Plaza right across from the Ferry Building not far from my office in the heart of the city’s Financial District. The Wheego is a brand new all-electric car from an interesting manufacturer in Georgia. Locally, the Wheego is sold at Ellis Brooks Auto Center. This intrigued me. Ellis Brooks is a venerable car name in San Francisco, having been around for 40+ years. I still remember their radio jingle from my childhood, “See Ellis Brooks today for your Chevrolet, corner of Bush and Van Ness . . .” The Ellis Brooks dealership now sells pre-owned cars and is no longer associated with GM. It has just begun selling the Wheego. Before I took my test drive, I had a chance to talk to Ellis Brooks’ grandson, John Brooks, about why they decided to sign up with Wheego. He seemed comfortable with the manufacturer in large part because the car was assembled from components made by manufacturers already in volume production of vehicles.
So how was the ride? Pretty good. It was quite roomy with a nice, quiet ride and a firm feel of the road. Allowing for the fact that it is a small two-seater coupe, it had the feel of real a car – not a golf cart or an experiment.
Now I should back up for a minute and explain that I have long been a skeptic that there will be significant adoption of all-electric vehicles any time soon. But this car changed my mind a bit.
My skepticism about this has been based on looking at the passenger car market and thinking about what it takes to succeed in that market. Then I compared the passenger car market to other potential electric vehicle markets.
Passenger cars have been the province of integrated high volume manufacturing, low margins, very high quality expectations (especially fit, finish and amenities), and very high service and support expectations. In short, the barriers to entry for this market seem quite daunting, especially when compared to the delivery truck market or the ATV market. These markets have significantly lower volumes, less integrated manufacturing (many manufacturers are essentially final assemblers), much lower quality expectations on fit, finish and amenities, and lower service and support expectations.
There are some low-volume passenger car manufacturers, but all make vehicles aimed at high priced specially markets, not low to mid priced daily drivers. There is another big difference between the passenger car market and the delivery truck market – what delivery truck buyers want fits really well with what electric vehicles do best:

  • predictable low to medium mileage daily duty cycle
  • low noise
  • excellent torque
  • low total cost of ownership
With an electric delivery truck, you don’t need to worry that you’ll ever need to drive from San Francisco to L.A. to visit your sick aunt. In fact, for commercial trucks, limited range can be a plus – there’s no way for trucks to wander very far. With passenger cars, limited range is a big reason not to buy.
Given this, I have felt for some time that we wouldn’t see significant adoption of all-electric vehicles until we started seeing real traction in markets like delivery trucks. I expected passenger cars (and delivery trucks too to some degree) would likely first go hybrid, then shift the hybrid balance to more electric (e.g. using fuel to run a generator to extend the electric range), and then later shift to all electric. These successive market advances would be linked to gaining manufacturing scale, cost down of batteries and other components critical to all-electric vehicles (though batteries is the big one).
My Wheego ride today and my chat with the dealer changed my view. Here was an all-electric car, at a regular car dealer, with a high but regular car price, from a car manufacturer that nearly appeared out of thin air. You see Wheego as a manufacturer is just a final assembler. From my initial quick look, Wheego came on the scene as a passenger car player in 2007 or so, backed by the former founder of MindSpring. Before then, it was exclusively an electric golf cart manufacturer. So it’s really been an eye blink in automotive time scale (2007 to 2010) to see cars turning up at dealerships. Granted, the model at dealers today and the one that I test drove is just a medium speed vehicle (MSV) with a top speed of 35 MPH and not for highway usage (more on that later). But this was still impressive to me.
Wheego gets the car bodies from a big manufacturer in China (a body that is currently used for gas drive cars in other international markets). It gets its motors from a Wisconsin electric motor manufacturer and its motor controller from Curtis Instruments who makes controllers for forklifts. Maybe the truck style manufacturing could work for passenger cars after all.
In addition, I began to think about the current passenger car market for all-electrics. There probably is a significant market for all-electric vehicles, even in the current economy, and even if they aren’t strictly ‘economic’ on a dollar per mile basis compared to gas or hybrid cars. Think about how much the early EV1 cost in its day[1], and how people still rave about it years and years later. In my revised view, I think there will be a small but significant true believer market in the U.S. for all-electric cars. Yes, the big boys are coming – Nissan with the Leaf, Chevy with the Volt, Ford with the Focus EV, but not for a year, maybe two, maybe more. In the mean time, the true believer market will be served by the likes of Wheego, Think, Smart, and others. Even after Nissan, Chevy, Ford and other big car companies arrive in the market, the early entrants may have continued success. Plus they may have customers and EV infrastructure that car manufacturers with non-existent, dormant, or failing EV programs may look to acquire. There is no substitute for firsthand customer knowledge.
The Wheego I drove was a medium speed vehicle (MSV) with a max speed 35 MPH and a real world range of 40 miles. The highway speed version is on the way – due to arrive this summer. It is currently undergoing NTHSA cash testing. It will have a top speed of 65 MPH and a range of 100 miles. The high speed vehicle (HSV) Wheego will not be a lot different than the MSV. Differences include: lithium ion batteries, airbags, and some additional structure supports to the body.
I now see the all-electric car market developing from two converging paths – the true believer all-electric passenger car market and the more economically driven all-electric truck and fleet vehicle markets. The true believer market will drive visibility and customer expectations, and provide valuable real world feedback about what electric car consumers care about and will pay for. While the truck and fleet markets will help dive down cost, I expect both will speed the adoption all-electric cars to a significant portion of the passenger car market.
So for you true believers out there, price before incentives for the MSV Wheego is ~$19K (and it’s eligible for a 10% Federal tax credit) putting the MSV price around $17K before any state or local incentives. Prices for the HSV have not yet been announced, but the target price is in the $30K range (and it will be eligible for a $7500 federal tax credit) putting the net cost of the HSV before state and local incentives in the roughly in the mid $20K range.

[1] The EV1 had a nominal low price of $34K or ~$48K in today’s dollars though it was never sold only leased. Reportedly production costs were $80+K per vehicle at the time. Initial lease costs were $640/month or $900/month in today’s dollars. Later this dropped to $350/month or $ 500/mo in today’s dollars with many different incentives layered on.

PowerShares Global Transportation

By John Addison (7/27/09). The transportation industry is beginning the biggest transformation since Henry Ford started making cars affordable for the mass market. Hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and electric vehicles point to a long-term transition from inefficient mechanical drive systems to efficient electrical systems. Engines powered by petroleum fuels are being replaced with electric motors powered by renewable energy. A growing amount of goods movement is by rail and moving people by high-speed rail.

A portfolio of companies that participate in these long-term trends comprise the portfolio of Invesco PowerShares Global Transportation (PTRP) – an electronically tradable fund (ETF). The fund is based on the Wilder NASDAQ OMX Global Energy Efficient Transport Index(sm). The Index includes global companies engaged in businesses that are likely to benefit from a transition toward using cleaner, less costly and more efficient means of transportation.

The fund attempts to rebalance quarterly with 25 percent holdings in each of four sectors which it defines: alternative vehicles, rail and subway systems, intermodal, and transportation innovation. The clean transportation companies are headquartered in many countries and participate in many sectors:

United States 37.10%
Japan 12.61%
United Kingdom 8.02%
Taiwan 7.99%
Italy 5.81%
France 5.55%
Germany 5.42%
Canada 4.80%
China 4.41%
Chile 2.91%
*as of 7/24/09

Top Holdings
BYD Co. Ltd. 4.41%
Giant Manufacturing Co. Ltd. 4.03%
Merida Industry Co. Ltd. 3.95%
GS Yuasa Corp. 3.85%
Shimano Inc. 3.74%
Maxwell Technologies Inc. 3.71%
Wabco Holdings Inc. 3.45%
Fuel Systems Solutions Inc. 3.29%
Alstom S.A. 3.16%
Piaggio & C.S.p.A. 3.05%

The fund is likely to gain from the growing success of high-speed rail which provides hundreds of millions of annual rides in Japan, France, and Spain, and is destined from major growth in other countries such as China and the United States. Holdings include Alstom, Kinki Sharyo, and Bombardier. Other holdings will benefit from the shift of goods movement from truck and plane to more efficient rail: CSX, Norfolk Southern, Union Pacific, Burlington Northern, and Canadian National Railway.

Over a billion people own bicycles or scooters – e-bikes and e-scooters are high-growth segments of this industry. The fund includes major players such as Giant, Piaggo, Merida, and Shimano.

Lithium batteries and ultracapacitors are integral to hybrids and electric vehicles. The fund includes BYD, GS Yuasa, Maxwell, Ener1, and Saft. Energy storage dominates the business models of these companies. Missing from the fund are electronic giants, where batteries are only part of their business such as Panasonic, Sanyo, Hitachi, NEC, and several others.

Disclosure: I own shares in this fund, as well as Alstom and Giant. Investing in this fund has a number of risks. It is concentrated. Most holdings are international. Illiquidity is a concern with few shares trading daily. Automobile manufacturers, except for BYD, are notably absent from the fund. Nevertheless, its 34 holdings provide some diversified global exposure into key players in the future of transportation.

Fidelity Select Automotive (FSAVX), representing a more traditional automotive portfolio, is up 86% year-to-date. iShares Dow Jones Transportation (IYT), with diversified goods movement and transportation services holdings, is up about 2% year-to-date. PowerShares Global Transportation (PRTP) is up about 27% year-to-date. As we transition to more efficient transportation with a smaller carbon footprint, PRTP may have long-term potential.

John Addison publishes the Clean Fleet Report. A number of his articles have also appeared in Cleantech Blog and Seeking Alpha. On August 22 he will present Cleantech ETF Investing at the SF Money Show.