ANDERSON, INDIANA--The Bright Idea plug-in hybrid van looks particularly cute from the back, with its cleverly designed 70/30 split rear door and neatly shaped rear fender skirt. Sure, it's a humble utility vehicle that will probably end up unloved and draped in ladders and company logos, but when you're starting with a clean sheet of paper, why not add a degree of style?
I was in Anderson, Indiana to drive the one and only Bright Idea, the fruit of a spinoff of the highly regarded Rocky Mountain Institute (famous for Amory Lovins and the "hypercar"). According to CEO John Waters, who drove me from Indianapolis (in an Audi!) and gave me a nifty Bright vest, the company surveyed the market and saw a niche in commercial delivery vans with plug-in hybrid drivetrains.
My drive was brief but fun. The Idea isn't road licensed, so I got to thrash it around the company's parking lot. This let me know it's pretty well screwed together -- no squeaks and rattles, as is common in prototypes -- and smoothly transitions between electric and gasoline mode. The steering could be improved, but I'm sure it will be before launch. I'd have loved to get it up to highway speeds. Here's the Idea on the road:
Plug-in hybrid vehicles have larger battery packs than standard hybrids, and plug into the wall for 30 to 50 miles of all-electric range. The Bright is good for 40 miles on batteries, and that means a fleet of them could recharge at a central hub and do a good part of their route without activating the four-cylinder Ford-sourced engine. Waters estimates that the Idea could be operated for 41 to 43 cents per mile, saving its operators a dime when compared to conventional gas-powered vans.
The Bright Idea hybrid van: ready to roll in Indiana. (Jim Motavalli photo)
The Idea will be somewhat more expensive than the competition, with the non-finalized price estimated in the very low $40s after a $7,500 federal tax credit. But a host of large companies, including FedEx, Coca-Cola and Frito-Lay, are looking closely at the Idea for its larger savings over time.
Bright has sunk an estimated $2 million into the Idea, and its shop displays the clay scale models (and wooden body buck) designed to sculpt a vehicle that has Prius-like aerodynamics. But Bright needs to go much further, into final engineering and manufacturing, and that will take cash it doesn't have. The company has started an engineering consultancy that will also convert vehicles to battery and plug-in hybrid configurations, but what it's really hoping for is a major Department of Energy loan.
Fisker got one of those loans, and Tesla got one, too -- will Bright be next? In the absence of readily available private capital, the company's future depends at least partly on federal aid as the only game in town. The Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing loan fund had $25 billion in it, but $8 billion of that is spent.
I think Bright has a good case to make, since its vehicle is 100 percent American-made, and the company is located in a Rust Belt town that lost 28,000 General Motors jobs. And the Bright is entirely practical, addressing a niche ignored by other manufacturers.
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