Interview with Tom Gage, CEO of AC Propulsion:
AC Propulsion has been around since 1992. Would you say your company is where the modern era of EV’s began?
Alan Cocconi founded AC Propulsion after working on the project that developed the General Motors Impact EV. GM went on to produce and then crush the EV1. AC Propulsion developed the AC150 drive system, the tzero, and now the eBox, so yes, we were there at the beginning and we’re still here.
Your “tzero” provided propulsion technology being used on the Venturi Fetish, along with several other prototypes and concept cars, including the DWRA “White Lightening” which was clocked in 1999 at a top speed of 254 MPH. How would you summarize this technology?
The key factor is high efficiency AND high performance. Electric power for cars is unique in this regard – you can have performance and still have very high efficiency and of course zero emissions from the car. So far, our drive system is the best embodiment of this concept and our technology and designs are being put to use by the companies you mentioned.
Why did your company decide in 2003 to limit production of the tzero to the three prototypes already built?
By the time we had built three tzeros, we understood that building cars from the ground up would divert us from our core skills – designing and manufacturing electric vehicle power systems. We decided that it was better to focus on what we did well and leave other aspects of car manufacturing to others. This approach bore fruit in 2004 when we began to license our technology, and again in 2006 when we started selling the eBox, an EV we build by converting an existing car rather than starting from scratch.
Describe the eBox and the basis of your decision to produce this vehicle. What speed, range and acceleration do you expect a standard eBox to deliver?
We chose to build conversions based on the Scion xB because it was light in weight, well-equipped, affordable, relatively easy to convert, and provided a lot of utility for the customer. Once we made that choice, the eBox name became an obvious choice. We are building about one car a month now. The ebox accelerates to 60 mph in 7 seconds, does 95 mph top speed and will go 120 miles on a normal charge, and 150 miles on a full charge.
The first eBox prototype hit the road in June 2006. Since then how many prototypes have you built, how many orders have you taken, and when – if ever – do you intend to go into volume production with this car. How much will it cost and when can I go buy one?
We have orders for eBox production through October right now. We expect to build 20 to 25 eBoxes in total through early 2008, and then start building a new EV based on an as yet undisclosed vehicle. The new AC Propulsion EV will be built in higher volume, but will still be very limited production. The eBox is $55,000 for the conversion plus the cost of the Scion xB, or about $70,000 total. The new EV will be priced the same or less.
If you were to pick a competitor’s electric vehicle as your favorite – aside from the eBox, of course – which vehicle would you choose and why? Related question – there are a lot of LEVs coming along and now a few high-performance EVs such as the Tesla Roadster and the ZAP-X. Do you see the eBox as fulfilling the demand for something in the middle, a practical, but freeway-worthy vehicle?
The eBox is intended to serve as the best current example of what people can expect from electric cars when, in the future, they become more broadly accepted and manufactured in much higher volume. What they can expect is superior performance, driveability, efficiency, and convenience, and that’s what the eBox delivers. Right now there is really nothing else available that represents what EVs can be. Over time, more and more people will come to understand that the limited range of an EV is easy to work around, and that the advantages and
pleasures of driving an EV are worth paying for.
What do you think of “range-extender” designs such as the Chevy “Volt” concept?
AC Propulsion has been building range extenders since 1993, first as trailer-mounted generators that we towed behind n EV to keep the battery charged while we accumulated test miles on our drive systems, then, in 2002, as a self-contained plug-in series hybrid based on a VW Jetta. The PHEV we built 5 years ago has almost exactly the same specs as the GM Volt concept. We recently upgraded it to Li batteries so it now goes 50 miles as a pure electric, and with the engine running can sustain 80 mph indefinitely without running down the battery. Having driven both our PHEV Jetta and our eBox, I prefer the eBox. Of course for long trips the Jetta is the better choice, but most of my driving around Los Angeles is less than 100 miles a day. With the eBox I can drive electric all day long. With the hybrid, I might have to run the engine some days. I think pure EVs or plug-in hybrids will both have a place in the market. In the long run, I think pure EVs will win out over cars like the our Jetta prototype and the GM Volt concept due to factors such as cost, complexity and driveability.
Do you ever see batteries being able to be recharged within minutes, as some aspirants to become volume EV manufacturers are claiming?
No, I think the idea of fast charging is an artifact of thinking that no car can be commercialized unless it operates just like a gas car. With that logic comes the insistance that 300 mile range and fast refueling are necessities. That dogma has led, in turn, to the mass delusion that a “hydrogen economy” was both necessary and feasible. A more realistic scenario is that electric cars will assume duties for which they are well suited, namely commuting and all manner of local driving, and combustion cars, both conventional and hybrid, will be in ample supply for long distance driving. In this scenario, there is no justification for the extremely high cost of 10-minute charging stations.
What do you see as the biggest challenge to getting EVs on the road in great numbers?
There are three barriers, perceptions, money, and time. First, people need to change their thinking about what they need from a car and what they are willing to pay to get it. For the past 100 years, the perceptions of the driving public in this country have been shaped by the US government’s policy of keeping gasoline cheap. When this policy changes, or when it can no longer fend off global energy realities, the driving public will start to look for alternatives which will include more efficient cars and alternative fuels. When they start looking, they will find electric cars are a good choice.
Second, conventional cars enjoy a cost advantage borne of a huge investment in productive capacity and an almost 2-billion unit learning curve. Electric cars will cost more to produce until economies of scale start to take hold. That cost penalty will slow commercialization unless offset by policies or energy cost factors that favor electricity over gasoline.
Third, the auto market is so large that it takes time to have a significant effect even with the most successful products. The tenth anniversary of the first Toyota hybrid is coming up and Toyota has produced about 1,000,000 hybrids in total. But in a world with over 500 million vehicles those hybrids represent a small fraction of a one percent of the total vehicle population. Even with enlightened market perceptions and reduced costs, electric transportation will take decades to become mainstream.