Sleek, Streamlined and Electric

A new breed of electric vehicles is on the way that may change everyone's idea of what the future will look like

In the not-too-distant future, your service station might very well be the garage in your home.

At least that is the vision of David Crane, the chief executive officer and president of NRG Energy, the Princeton-based company that is one of the largest independent power producers in the country. The company believes a transition to electric vehicles is inevitable, and Crane views it as a cornerstone of the 21st century power industry.

“We want to be the network operating system,” said Crane, “the people who provide the energy infrastructure for the electric vehicle.”

NRG, whose investments span traditional power plants, nuclear power and wind and solar projects, also wants to supply the vehicle to consumers.

Toward that end NRG has invested in Aptera, an Oceanside, CA, startup that has developed a three-wheeled, two-door electric vehicle that probably more resembles a spaceship on an old cartoon show than the typical hybrid. But the Aptera 2e is capable of driving more than 100 miles without a charge.

Its exotic look, combined with features that include using recycled plastic water bottles to make simulated leather for seats and headrests, convinced Crane to put some venture capital into the startup.

“We don’t do that a lot, but it’s what the electric vehicle is trying to achieve,” said Crane, who concedes electric vehicles will be a niche car in the short term. “You have to offer a different experience, but you don’t have to get within 15 feet of this car to understand it is completely different with its gull-wing doors.”

Winning Consumer Confidence

The Aptera 2e is expected to be available to consumers by January 2012 if the startup is successful in obtaining a $200 million loan from the U.S. Department of Energy. The funding will be used to build a manufacturing facility in southern California.

NRG is already testing the infrastructure needed to make electric vehicles a viable sell to consumers. According to Aptera’s chief marketing officer, Marques McCammon, the cost of recharging a battery overnight in New Jersey would run about $2.00, based on current electricity prices.

Part of the attraction of the 2e is aerodynamics, including front-wheel “pants” to reduce drag and increase efficiency. The entire vehicle is designed to optimize efficiency, said McCammon.

Much of the vehicle is made of composite materials, or aluminum, which allow it to weigh a lot less than your typical small vehicle, McCammon explained. “We’ve optimized this vehicle without sacrificing safety,” he said, inviting a reporter to try (unsuccessfully) to put a dent in the composite door with a small sledge hammer. A badly bashed-in conventional car door stood nearby for comparison.

Inside Jay Leno’s Garage

The bigger question is whether the American public will buy the vehicles, although McCammon notes electric vehicles have been around for quite a while. He tells of visiting talk show host Jay Leno and seeing a 1909 Baker electric car in his garage.

Aptera hopes to begin selling cars at prices ranging from the high $20,000s to low $40,000s, according to Tom Reichenbach, chief engineer at Aptera. About 1,000 vehicles would be offered in the first year in some 200 dealerships around the country.

To Crane, the key to success is pricing the vehicle at a cost comfortable to consumers and convincing them charging the vehicle isn’t going to be a huge hassle.

He likens it to customers coming home and recharging their cell phones. In this case they would also charge their vehicles. To make it more attractive, Crane believes companies like NRG should offer unlimited-charging packages, similar to what cell companies offer for unlimited calls.

NRG would offer customers a package including the cost of the home charger and unlimited charging for three years. It also would deploy a convenient system of at-large charging stations, such as it plans to do in a pilot project in Harris County, Texas, near Houston.

In that pilot, NRG plans to build 50 to 80 fast-charging stations at convenient locations around the county, with the aim of providing quick recharges within 10 minutes or so that would give drivers another 40 miles of driving.

While New Jersey has yet to develop much of a recharging infrastructure, Crane believes it ought to be an ideal location for electric vehicles because of its population density. “Whether the Northeast is in the first wave, it ought to be in the second wave,” he said.

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