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Charged Up: Electric Vehicles

Three start-ups that are developing, converting, and manufacturing electric vehicles.
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They pick up garbage in Paris and deliver milk in London. Neiman Marcus sells them; the Big Three in Detroit do not. Though they were introduced to this country nearly a century ago by Henry Ford, battery-powered electric vehicles (EVs) were until recently viewed as the pet project of hippie engineers. Now that more than half of all Americans live in areas where smog levels exceed federal clean-air standards, EVs are suddenly being given serious consideration by legislators, utilities, auto manufacturers -- and a host of entrepreneurs eager to cash in by going electric. "Everybody in the world sees this market developing," says Bill Van Amburg of CalStart, a transportation-technology consortium based in Burbank, Calif. Still, the 1,000 to 5,000 EVs on the road today constitute just a minuscule fraction of the nation's 144 million automobiles, and EV innovators encounter their share of roadblocks. "Traditional business plans don't work," gripes Jeffery Kester of GreenWheels Electric Car Co., a Beverly, Mass., start-up. "How do you make projections for something that hasn't been sold before?" But with tough vehicle-emissions mandates set to kick in starting in 1998, and the Big Three's role still uncertain, EV consultant Steve McCrea argues in his book Why Wait for Detroit? that "it's the start-ups who are going to make all the difference."

Some start-ups already making electric vehicles a reality:

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Ecoelectric Corp.
Tucson

"It's good for us that the Big Three are dragging their feet, for it gives the little guys a chance to build up a head of steam," says Mary Ann Chapman. Chapman, a former race-car driver, spent 20 years running her own computer-software business before founding an electric- conversion company, EcoElectric Corp., in 1992. Privately funded with $30,000, EcoElectric does custom conversions of small sedans and pickups; designs and sells EV components; and provides EV consulting, maintenance, and repair services. A self-taught EV expert who drives and races her own peach-colored converted Chevy pickup, Chapman claims she is "not doing anything new and amazing in the R&D category," but rather focusing on workmanship. "My electric vehicles just don't break. Not the way I build them," she boasts. EcoElectric recently entered an alliance with a Phoenix company to launch an electric-vehicle courier service between Phoenix and Tucson, which is scheduled to begin operation next month. It will be the first of its kind in the country, claims Chapman. EcoElectric expects 1994 revenues to be less than $1 million.

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Electronic Power Technology
Norcross, Ga.

Historically, three of the biggest problems facing EVs have been their high cost, limited range, and short battery life. "We feel confident we can break through at least two of those barriers," says Karen Robinson, president of two-and-a-half-year-old Electronic Power Technology Inc. (EPTI), a manufacturer of battery-recharging systems. The company's weapon? A patented rapid battery-charging technology developed by a Russian immigrant. According to Robinson, EPTI's technology uses a microchip to shorten charging time substantially while prolonging battery life. This month the company plans to begin shipping its on-board and freestanding EV-charging stations. "With rapid charging, range becomes less of an issue," notes Robinson, who envisions installing her charging stations in the parking lots at McDonald's someday. EPTI, whose investors include a former secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, is also targeting markets such as manufacturers and users of portable computers. With current contracts, Robinson projects that the company's 1994 revenues will reach $1.6 million.

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Renaissance Cars
Palm Bay, Fla.

"People think I'm 96 years old, I've been in this industry so long," says EV veteran Robert Beaumont. Today Beaumont (who's actually 61) is president of Renaissance Cars, a manufacturer that industry experts expect to produce the first EVs competitively priced with conventional autos. Back in 1974, when Beaumont came out with the CitiCar, a glorified electric golf cart, his associates indicated he was 20 years too early. After the CitiCar was steered into Chapter 11, Beaumont went back to researching EVs, "waiting until the time was right." He has reemerged this year with the Tropica Roadster, a sporty convertible with an aluminum chassis and a body made from the same durable plastic used in football helmets. According to Beaumont, the Tropica will be able to travel 60 to 80 miles between chargings and reach a cruising speed of 60 miles per hour. He plans to sell the car through a network of 20 Florida auto dealerships for a suggested retail price of $12,900. Production is scheduled to start next month, and Renaissance expects 1994 revenues in excess of $13 million.

-- Alessandra Bianchi

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