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November 13, 2011

Electric cars made in America, driven in Charlottesville

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DailyProgressBy Brian Wheeler
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Sunday, November 13, 2011

It’s not every day that a nationally recognized business and political leader comes to town to announce he is going to manufacture a new American car.

A battery powered electric car.

MyCar-2x400
The all electric MyCar.  Photo provided by GreenTech Automotive

The offshoring of U.S. manufacturing jobs is a story about which we are all familiar. Some argue that America should focus increasingly on innovation and intellectual property. Then find cheap foreign labor to manufacture the products we invent, and that American consumers desire.

Terence R. McAuliffe, a candidate in Virginia’s 2009 Democratic gubernatorial primary and past chairman of the Democratic National Committee, has turned that equation around. He bought technology invented in China, and he’s opening the factory in America.

McAuliffe says he wants electric automobiles to be both affordable and built by U.S. workers, especially workers in economically depressed areas.

“We have some great electric cars out there, but they are expensive,” McAuliffe said in an interview. “I want the masses to be able to buy our car.”

During a recent visit, McAuliffe made the case that all-electric vehicles can have a bright future in towns like Charlottesville.

“When I did run for governor, I ran on a campaign of big ideas,” McAuliffe told a gathering at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs last month. “I said if you don’t like my big ideas, then don’t vote for me, and you didn’t. So I am back in business again.”

McAuliffe describes himself as a serial entrepreneur who has started 27 different companies. None more challenging, he says, than his current venture.
Photo-2x600
The first American-made MyCar comes off the factory floor in Horn Lake, Miss on November 11, 2011. Photo provided by GTA.

On Friday, McAuliffe’s McLean-based GreenTech Automotive unveiled its latest design for the MyCar, an all-electric vehicle that will be built entirely by U.S. workers at a new plant in Mississippi.

The MyCar is a so-called Neighborhood Electric Vehicle with models that will range in cost between $10,000 and $17,000 depending on the size of the lithium ion battery pack.

The MyCar has a range of between 40 and 100 miles and a top speed of 45 mph. Future versions will be certified for highway use.

“It’s a perfect … utility car,” McAuliffe said. “Eighty percent of Americans drive less than 40 miles a day.”

Denmark has bought GreenTech’s first year of production, about 110 cars, which will be manufactured at a temporary plant in Horn Lake, Miss. McAuliffe is opening a permanent factory in nearby Tunica, which will eventually employ 350 workers.

However, local dealers of competing cars say they are finding early adopters of electric vehicles hard to come by.

Corey Cummings, a salesman at Jim Price Automotive, says he has three Chevrolet Volts in Charlottesville. The Volt is a hybrid-electric because it also has a small gas tank and internal combustion engine.

“We just got our first ones in September,” said Cummings. “We haven’t sold one yet.”

“It’s a $40,000 car, and even with a $7,500 tax credit, you still need to find the right buyer with the right daily driving routine,” said Cummings.

20111110-Phillips_Mike
Mike Phillips, Sales Manager, Colonial Auto

At the nearby Colonial Auto dealership, sales manager Mike Phillips is offering the Nissan Leaf. The Leaf, like the MyCar, is an all-electric vehicle that costs between $30,000 and $35,000.

“We have only sold one so far, and that was to Dominion Virginia Power, Phillips said. “I guess they are a good test pilot. It went to the main office in Richmond.”

“On a full charge, this particular car can go 108 miles,” Phillips said. “We do have some orders in the pipeline. The city of Charlottesville is getting three of them.”

Since September, Colonial has had one Leaf available for customer test drives. According to Phillips, the cars can be purchased online and shipped to a dealer in about 90 days. Part of that process involves a Nissan contractor installing a charging station at the buyer’s home, most of which is covered by manufacturer incentives and tax credits.

“They estimate with an average car today you will spend $1,800 to $2,000 a year on fuel costs,” Phillips said. “With an electric car you are going to spend about $350 a year on electricity.”

“The main question I get is, ‘How far will it go?’” Phillips said.

David Slutzky, a former Albemarle County supervisor, is an associate professor in the University of Virginia School of Engineering.

Slutzky calls that consumer question “range anxiety,” a perception that you might get stranded with a dead battery.

He also thinks he is the only person in Charlottesville who drives to work each day in an all-electric vehicle. Slutzky bought a 2000 Ford Ranger pickup truck that was converted to electric in 2007. He now has a converted Subaru Outback as well.

20111110-Slutzky-Ford
Charging port (top left) on David Slutzky's 2000 Ford Ranger

“My truck has a 65-mile range, and I’ve never gotten stuck,” Slutzky said. “I just charge it at home in my garage every night, and it’s two to three days of driving even if I don’t charge it.”

Now he’s teaching students at the university about the technology and helping them convert other gasoline powered cars through a student organization called RideForward, formed 4 years ago with the help of fellow professor James Durand.

“I am convinced that more and more people are going to start driving electric cars locally,” said Slutzky. “It’s just that until a month or two ago, you couldn’t get one.”

McAuliffe sees the MyCar as one day being the “Made in America” choice for the green car buyer. And as to a future run for governor in 2013?

“I always keep my options open,” said McAuliffe. “I’d have to walk away from what will be a very substantial business around the world, but if I can get in and help people and really create jobs … I’d be interested in doing it.”

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