The Bright Idea: Now backed with GM cash. (Credit: Bright Automotive)
General Motors recently launched a $100 million fund named GM Ventures LLC to get the once-staid company into some innovative technologies, and its president, Jon Lauckner, had been in office barely a month when the first $5 million was handed out -- to Bright Automotive.
The most common reaction was probably "Bright what?" Despite a somewhat glamorous launch as a spinoff of Amory Lovins' fast-paced Rocky Mountain Institute (with investment from Google, Alcoa, Johnson Controls and the Turner Foundation), the company with plans to built a very green plug-in hybrid commercial van languished for want of further investment. Like many other startups, it was left hoping for the Department of Energy funding that was going mainly to established players.
GM's investment "validates" Bright, said Chairman and CEO Reuben Munger. "We're delighted to be in a partnership with Reuben and the Bright team," said Lauckner. It was a mutual admiration society.
And it makes strategic sense. "This is a great first pick for Jon Lauckner and GM Ventures," said EV strategist and consultant Chelsea Sexton (one of the stars of Who Killed the Electric Car?). "The Bright team has a crucial mix of deep automotive and EV experience and innovative spirit, but is refreshingly lacking in arrogance. I've long thought that partnerships between large and small automakers hold great potential for both sides, and it was only a matter of time for a major OEM to see the potential in Bright."
Amen to that. I visited Bright in Indiana, and drove the Idea. It was plain that here was a solution for delivery fleets worldwide. The Idea was engineered from the ground up as an EV, and was also designed to be entirely practical for commercial uses. Hybrids make total sense for the type of around-town stop-and-go that is routine for delivery trucks. Add the plug-in capacity, and the travel just got a lot cheaper per-mile (as well as greener). Plus, there's almost 400 miles of range, compared to 100 miles for battery EVs. All that technology adds cost, however, so the upfront investment is higher.
The DOE passed over Bright, but GM's investment may put it on the government's map. I expect the company to get further government funding (I say "further" because, after all, GM's money is from the taxpayers, isn't it?) In a Bloomberg video here, Munger called the GM investment a "first step" that would also leverage additional private capital and possibly a major government loan.
George Augustaitis, an analyst with IHS Automotive, points out that the investment will also help GM pass the zero emission vehicle (ZEV) mandate in California, which affects all automakers selling more than 60,000 vehicles annually in the state (and requires them to build a certain number of zero-emission EVs). "While GM will get a credit earned for the Volt, an investment in Bright will allow them to earn even more credits," he said.
Ford's entry in this same market is the electric version of the Transit Connect van, with an 80-mile range. I've driven that one, too, and thought it was great, although with a third of the range of the Bright. The Transit Connect, built in conjunction with Azure Dynamics, is smaller, but equally practical for fleets. The first customer was AT&T, which promised to buy at least two. But the company has 77,000 vehicles, so it could add a whole lot more (as could Coca Cola, Fed-Ex and many more).
The alliance with GM gives Indiana-based Bright access to the GM parts bin, and the first pick will be a suitable four-cylinder engine, Munger said. One would expect there to be some synergy with the Chevrolet Volt, especially the power electronics and battery pack, but neither Bright nor GM was talking about that during a conference call Tuesday.
This is just the start of the Bright/GM partnership. Other announcements will likely follow about the Bright future, maybe from the DOE (the company asked for $450 million).
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