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Electric Vehicle Company Finds Niche In North Carolina

Wed, 05/07/2008 - 6:01am
Katie Scarvey, AP

MOORESVILLE, N.C. (AP) -- Cruise down Rolling Hill Road in Mooresville and you'll find plenty of businesses devoted to making the perfect internal combustion engine for high performance cars.

Bobby Jones Racing. Cagnazzi Racing. Team Rensi Motorsports.

The Salisbury Post reports that it's a little surprising to discover Hybrid Technologies tucked among all the racing shops.

Vehicles are made here, yes, but the smell of gasoline is absent. At Hybrid Technologies, petroleum is not king. It's not even a member of the royal court.

Although the word ''hybrid'' suggests the use of both gas and electric power, the vehicles made by Hybrid Technologies are electric, powered solely by lithium batteries.

And they are powerful, shattering the image many people have of a battery-powered car as little more than a humming, oversized toy for the green crowd.

''An electric car doesn't have to be three wheels and made of recycled trash can plastic,'' says Ron Cerven, project development engineer and frequent spokesman for the company.

That became abundantly clear when the Salisbury Post got to check out Hybrid Technologies' Reaper recently during the filming of a promotional video for the company.

It was a little strange to see The Reaper which looks kind of like a baby Hummer tearing over the terrain, kicking up grass and dirt, barreling up and down steep creek banks without the sound of a screaming engine accompanying it.

And if you don't think that an electric car can accelerate quickly enough for your stomach to lurch well, you're wrong.

Designed for military use, this concept vehicle was unveiled in March at the New York International Auto Show. The benefits are obvious: the electric engine gives the vehicle a stealth factor in combat situations. It's also muscular and agile, capable of speeds up to 85 miles per hour with a range of up to 185 miles.

The Reaper is only one of the electric vehicles the company makes from the ground up. They also build all-terrain vehicle, bicycles, wheelchairs, and a chopper that can reach speeds of more than 70 miles per hour. Their glamour vehicle is a high-performance sports car that can go up to 120 miles per hour and accelerate from 0 to 60 in five seconds.

Much of the company's business, however, is in converting already popular production cars to run on electricity.

Walk into their immaculately clean shop and you may see a Mini Cooper, a Toyota Yaris, a Chrysler Crossfire or a PT Cruiser only they're not the versions you might be familiar with.

Workers remove the factory-installed engines and install an electric motor, along with a lithium ion battery, transforming the production cars to emission-free electric vehicles that can go about 120 miles between charges. Car owners simply plug the battery into a regular outlet overnight. A full charge takes 6-8 hours.

These cars are not generally considered viable for making long trips; instead, they are marketed as driving-around-town cars a commuter's eco-friendly workhorse.

Hybrid Technologies also produces an electric version of the SmartCar, the tiny snub-nosed car popular in Europe for its great gas mileage and parking ease.

Keith Branyon, a Fort Worth attorney, has a Hybrid Technologies electric SmartCar that he got through a Sam's Club promotion that offered one customer the chance to buy a car, which was paired with a trip to Kennedy Space Center to see a shuttle launch.

Branyon loves his electric car.

''I think the technology is amazingly good if you live in an urban area and do a lot of city driving,'' he says.

He commutes to work every day with his wife in his SmartCar. He keeps it plugged in when he's not driving it, and says he can't see any significant change in his electric bill.

His car is very peppy, he says, like ''a golf cart on steroids.'' He's gone over 65 miles per hour in it, and he's impressed with its acceleration. ''It'll jerk your head back,'' he says.

''It's an amazing conversation piece. People stop me in parking lots, or pull up alongside of me at stop lights and talk to me with no hesitation.''

With gas prices skyrocketing, the electric vehicle arena has been flooded with startup companies. Hybrid Technologies believes that its battery management system which harnesses the lithium power is the key to its future.

The finished conversions aren't cheap a customer can expect to pay about $39,500 for a Yaris (which might cost about $15,000 from the factory); a Mini Cooper goes for upward of $60,000.

Because the converted cars are no longer covered on the original factory warranties, the names must be changed. The Mini is the LiV Flash; The PT Cruiser is the LiV Surge; the SmartCar is the LiV Dash; the Yaris is the LiV Wise.

Hybrid Technologies offers a warranty on its vehicles a tricky proposition since its cars are scattered all over the country. The company will put a technician on a plane if troubleshooting can't be done over the phone, Cerven says and in the worst case scenario, they'll pay to have the car shipped back to the shop.

The company can produce about 50 cars a month, Cerven says. There are plans to expand the facility and add production capacity.

The company has been attracting a lot of attention recently. They're working with Sam's Club to offer an electric Mini Cooper. They're also negotiating with the NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission to get a battery-powered PT Cruiser taxi on New York streets. NASA is using some of Hybrid Technologies' vehicles, as is the Environmental Protection Agency.

For now, Hybrid Technologies isn't selling to the typical car buyer. Its customers tend to be greener than average both in terms of financial resources and environmental awareness.

Although the initial outlay for an electric car is significantly higher than for a regular gas-powered car, the cost to drive an electric car is considerably less. A car that gets a fairly thrifty 30 miles to the gallon would require about $13.50 worth of gas to drive 120 miles.

The cost in electricity to power 120 miles which is about what a car will get on a single charge is about $2.20.

Branyon points out that tax credits are available for buyers of electric cars his credit this year was more than $2,000.

In addition to weaning drivers off expensive fossil fuel, Cerven says maintenance costs are slashed with electric cars, since they require no oil or air filter changes.

The small number of moving parts less than 10 percent of what cars with gas engines have is another attractive feature.

Branyon says that he's put 3,500 miles on his car so far without any problems at all, and he's been thrilled with the savings on gas. He pays attention to the dashboard readout that tells him how much power is left so that he doesn't get stranded with a dead battery.

The company estimates that one of its lithium ion battery will be good for at least 120,000 miles before it needs to be replaced. Since they're not sure how much the batteries will cost down the road, Cerven won't hazard a guess as to how much that will cost.

Hybrid Technologies is certainly not alone in trying to carve out a niche in the potentially huge market for electric vehicles. However the field shakes out, Hybrid Technologies appears to be a strong contender, and Cerven says that vehicle prices are bound to go down as technology advances.

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