Can Think’s electric car revolutionize the auto industry? August 1 2007

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August Electric Vehicle

Have you driven a Fjord

Think’s zippy little carbon-free electric driving could help reverse 100 of automotive history, writes 2.0 magazine.

That looks Frode Aschim of Range Partners says with a Minutes later, he slides the driver’s seat and speeds

Did someone kill the electric You wouldn’t know it on this May morning in Scandinavia, where the of a mass-produced battery-powered vehicle is resurrected and actual cars are to begin rolling off the production by year’s end.

The London VCs are the latest visitors to make the to Think to meet Willums, a oilman turned venture sustainability guru, and solar

Tesla Motors CEO Martin flew to Oslo to take a and sent back his people to out a deal to supply Think high-power lithium-ion batteries. An from PGE (Charts. Fortune 500 ), the California utility, dropped by his vacation to talk about Think a foothold in the Golden

Dean Kamen, inventor of the scooter, paid a visit, an investor, and is now working on what be the next breakthrough in automotive (more on that later).

between Oslo and California, has raised $78 million from Valley and European investors by the genial, soft-spoken Norwegian’s of a carbon-neutral urban car. You spot him at Buck’s, the VC hangout in or at a tech conference in Napa. months after Willums’s group acquired Think year, he was hammering out its strategy at a session hosted by Google.

pitch is this: He’s not selling an electric car; upending a century-old automotive aiming to change the way cars are sold, owned, and driven.

a cue from Dell (Charts. 500 ), the company will sell online, built to order. It forgo showrooms and seed the through car-sharing services Zipcar.

Every car will be Wi-Fi-enabled, becoming, according to a rolling computer that can wirelessly with its driver, Think owners, and the power

In other words, it’s Web 2.0 on We want to sell mobility, says. We don’t want to a thing called the Think.

a lot to ride on one tiny car. And a big gamble for consumers, particularly SUV-loving Americans. But global the boom in green energy, and the economics of electric car production doing for $100 million Detroit does for $1 billion have unleashed forces won’t be as easy to crush as the EV1 car scrapped by General Motors

Fortune 500 ) in 2003.

There is a shift happening that is to require new business models, Ed Kjaer, an electric vehicle who runs the EV program for Southern Edison. The timing is right. We are on a now toward electric cars, and is no going back.

We’ve down this road of course, most famously in the when General Motors upwards of $1 billion to develop the a teardrop-shaped electric car designed to with a California zero-emissions Less well-known was Ford’s into the electric car market the one that led directly to Willums.

its Detroit rival, Ford Fortune 500 ) in 1999 had acquired electric car startup Pivco, it renamed Think Nordic. In the Pivco had produced a small EV called the Citi, about 40 of were sent to San Francisco as of a pilot car-sharing program.

were horrible little recalls Tom Turrentine, a research at the University of California at Davis’s of Transportation Studies.

But just Ford bought the company, had rolled out a new version of the car. the City, it was a big step up. Among leasing the car was a former Stanford student named Sergey We drove one a long time Google co-founder Larry says.

Sort of a milk-carton-material

With its eye on the California market, pumped $150 million the company to design a next-generation that met European and U.S. standards. But when it looked the automakers were going to the California regulation, Ford sold Think to a Swiss company.

By 2006, Think was in Willums, meanwhile, was about to his firm for private foundation having made a mint his investment in REC, an $8 billion solar energy company. But the electric car manufacturer caught his

So I called the two other key investors in REC buying Think, says 60. We didn’t know anything the car business. But we knew how to build businesses.

Willums picked up its factory, and Ford’s nearly design for a new-model City for the price of about $15 million. freed him to think about how to a 21st-century car company. Much had since Ford sold Global warming was dominating the the Iraq war had Americans on edge energy security, and governments beginning to provide generous tax for electric cars.

We felt it would be more fun and profitable to think radically Willums says.

One week his offer for Think was accepted in 2006, Willums happened to be in where he hooked up with Makower, a well-connected Bay Area business consultant. Through at Google (Charts. Fortune 500 ), arranged for Think to hold a session at the Googleplex in Mountain

The question on the table, Makower was this: If you could build a car from the ground up, with all we about the Web and mass customization and responsibility and localization and sustainability and marketing, what would look like?

Think’s in the rural town of Aurskog is reminiscent of Ikea than of Ford, with its louvered exterior, bright open and shiny surfaces. There’s a drop of oil or smudge of grease on the floor. This is an assembly and the company puts together the City much the way a child a model car.

It’s a low investment, says Think director Ole Fretheim. We can put up new factories easily.

He points to the black chassis of a City standing on a pallet; it’s shipped from Thailand. At one station, attach the car’s aluminum — made in Denmark and drop in a French motor. At station, prefabricated rust-and polymer-plastic body panels in Turkey are hung on the frame of a completed car.

The modular means that Think can body styles — a of a sporty convertible is parked in one of the factory — without retooling. It also means Think can set up shop near its markets so it doesn’t have to the finished cars.

I get behind the of one of 10 prototype coupes. With headlights and a rakish rear, the test car is about 2 feet than a Mini Cooper but 6 taller, giving it a surprisingly feeling — an effect is magnified by the glass hatch stretches from roof to and that makes parking about idiotproof.

Start the car up, and the sound is the annoying hum of its vacuum-pump-powered brakes (to be replaced on the production Put the pedal to the metal and the City off. It’s no Tesla — the current battery is to 62 miles an hour.

But it is nimble and and goes about 112 miles on a charge. And it hits the red line on the fun

Which is the point, according to The customers are the trendsetters, the early the people who had to have a Prius, he in lilting, Norwegian-accented English. definitely not the only car you own.

The main thing we want to is not a car but a whole concept around the carefree, carbon-free mobility.

means no showrooms or obnoxious Want to test-drive the City? a text message to find the Think About car-sharing

If you like what you see, you and order your City

The idea of the future is, Never a car before it’s paid Willums says. Once you the image that yours is a car to be people will be happy to for just the right car.

each vehicle is Internet-ready, you can your vehicle to, say, its battery charge. The City e-mail you when it’s for it to be serviced. If someone has a great for a software link to the Think, we say it, Willums says.

It’s the who come up with those We just give them the

Think plans to sell the car but the battery as a way to overcome one of the biggest of electric cars. The battery is by far the expensive component of the City, will list for about in Norway. Take the battery out of the and Willums says he can sell the car for $15,000 to $17,000 in the United with a mobility fee of $100 to a month that might include services like and wireless Internet access.

car will come equipped a Web-enabled black box to monitor the performance. When the car loses of its range as the battery degrades, will offer buyers the of replacing it at the same cost or a lower monthly fee.

Investment Group, a Palo private equity firm has invested in both Think and intends to launch a battery-leasing to jump-start that market. You a natural way to create a total package, says Capricorn and partner Ion Yadigaroglu. You’re not to pay the gas station; you’ll pay us a monthly fee to use a that our company owns, can be replaced in later years.

the market for the old batteries? One answer reside in the basement of PGE’s headquarters in downtown San Francisco. one wall, a nickel metal battery salvaged from a Prius sits plugged a standard utility meter.

a switch is thrown, the meter to spin backward as the battery electricity into the grid.

PGE plans to buy thousands of plug-in and electric car batteries that outlived their usefulness for but still retain capacity. The will install them in the of office towers and at electrical to store green energy by wind farms and solar

It will make vehicle cheaper, says Sven PGE’s supervisor for clean-air who recently visited Willums in to discuss collaborating with

Mass production will lower the cost of batteries. In Think cut a $43 million deal Silicon Valley electric car Tesla to buy a version of the lithium-ion packs that the California is using to power its forthcoming

Like Tesla, Think is on the billions spent to create batteries for laptops and mobile I think those guys are savvy businesspeople and are likely to it off, Tesla CEO Eberhard of Willums et al. Tesla’s batteries not only bestow some Valley cachet on Think Brin and Page are Tesla — but also give the the oomph to do 85 to 95 mph on the highway, according to

But better batteries are only the If Dean Kamen has his way, the will change our relationship the energy grid itself.

August Electric Vehicle

I reach the top of a winding driveway to Westwind, Kamen’s estate Manchester, N.H. I’m by an employee rolling along on a Then Kamen, dressed in and short sleeves, a smartphone on his hip, comes whipping a corner on a small black that sounds like the Enterprise going to warp 8. It’s an electric scooter with a Stirling heat that is charging the vehicle’s providing virtually greenhouse-gas-free

The iconoclastic inventor, who made his fortune developing medical has spent more than $40 creating Stirling engines can tap almost any fuel source, restaurant grease to cow dung. He to equip the City with extending its range by hundreds of

Kamen met Willums about a ago and later visited Think in He’s a fun, gregarious, guy, Kamen says. thing I know, I’m sucked into this, and sending me a car, and — son of a — I’ve got this car and I’m putting a Stirling in!

The navy-blue City is parked to a 1913 Model T and an 1898 car. Kamen opens a in the floor of the City’s cargo to reveal a silver cylindrical — a larger version of the engine that powers his

You can plug the car into the wall to the batteries, or you can plug into Kamen says, noting when it’s connected to the his Stirling engine will indoor air-quality standards.

takes the City for a drive. little sucker will he says, talking a mile a as he accelerates past his wind and down a hill. Right now is just a hobby for the inventor, but thinks the car could be the killer app to toward his vision of the future: Stirling engines powering the off-the-grid villages.

If Kamen the Stirling work in an electric Willums will get another plant for his open-source car and a way to overcome fears that they’ll run out of in the middle of nowhere.

And that’s the start. Both men see the City as of a network of mobile generators can draw energy from the grid and send electricity during periods of peak If you have enough Thinks out you would literally change the of the grid, Kamen says.

But for to happen, you need a partner to managing vast amounts of over global networks, a like the one run by Kamen’s pals and Page. A couple of days my visit to his New Hampshire home, flies to California to have with the Google guys, the schematics of his Think/Stirling hybrid.

interested, Kamen tells me the week. Sergey loved his old He’s way enthusiastic about the new

Brin and Page took the step toward Googling the on a sunny day in June when the giant unveiled the vehicle-to-grid stations it had built with PGE in a carport at the Googleplex.

While a of reporters looked on, Brin a retractable power cord a converted Toyota Prius. he pressed a key on a laptop, a wireless instructed the car to send electricity in its battery back to PGE. haven’t been thinking of on a large scale, Page

If you have a million of these or tens of millions, it’ll a huge impact., the philanthropic arm, is creating a of plug-in hybrids for an employee program. Dan Reicher,’s of climate and energy initiatives, he would consider including the City. It’s a very car, he says.

That’s to Willums’s ears. He might the City as a computer on wheels, but in what he’s selling is a iPod — a hip, chunk of plastic and metal Zenlike simplicity. Think to roll out its first cars in in early 2008, then to other European countries.

The Continent should be a rich for Willums, given that car owners there often for generous tax breaks and such as free parking.

The U.S. where he hopes to sell the in selected cities in 2009, is problematic. Turrentine, the UC Davis EV wonders if the City can hold its own on highways. Even the company’s hesitate when asked the prospects of selling an urban EV in the land of the SUV.

I don’t I don’t know, says Eberhard. I’d like to, obviously, because I want to truckloads of batteries to them. It do well in San Francisco.

It could do in Manhattan.

One key hurdle: creating an of charging stations. Hal LaFlash, director of emerging clean-technology thinks EV owners could end up charging their cars at office parking lots. services like Zipcar and offer another opportunity.

The market has certain pickup and we can work with them on infrastructure, LaFlash says.

in his Oslo office, Willums those challenges. But he senses a in the wind — one that and Tokyo have been to pick up on. The British and Norwegians, to prove their green want to place fleet he says. And one U.S. company, he declines to identify, would 400 cars.

His goals are modest; talking about making Citys a year. But even would make Think the biggest electric car company.

one indicator of people’s willingness to differently about cars is outside in the parking lot. the dusty old-model Think in Willums has been tooling Oslo for the past four

I drive two cars, a Volvo wagon and the Think, says a car collector whose stable a ’61 Austin Healey. I use the every day. The others in the garage.

Todd Woody is the managing editor at Business

August Electric Vehicle

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