Phoenix's Bat-Out-of-Hell EV
By Bill Moore
At the urging to Greg Glass, a Vice President with BCII, the producers of the HGTV series, "Living with Ed", I caught the last flight out of Omaha before the great March blizzard of '07 hit and winged my way to Los Angeles to be on hand for a gala debut of Phoenix Motorcar's tricked-out, all-electric sport utility truck (SUT): complete with smoky gray custom leather interior and dramatic black on red two-tone paint scheme.
Surrounded by Petersen's second-floor collection of classic hotrods, the Phoenix SUT seemed to fit right in. The company had hired one of LA's best car customizers to create a visually-arresting, paradigm-busting look that fairly screams "race me." I was half expecting some tropical forest-themed, full-body wrap decal sporting exotic birds, green tree frogs and rare jungle flowers.
Instead, when the draping was removed, there sat this starkly bold zero emission vehicle (ZEV) that is capable of carrying five adults at freeway speeds for 130 miles and rechargeable in under 10 minutes. A namby-pamby, eco-mobile is the last thing you imagine when you look at this vehicle; "bat-out-of-hell" seems far more appropriate. I think that's exactly the impression Phoenix wanted to convey and it worked.
Intriguingly, also on display on the same floor were other classic, but now long-gone electrics like a 1907 Detroit Electric, the Nissan Hypermini from the 2003 Michelin Challenge Bibendum, and a Honda EV-Plus. Nissan's fuel cell Xterra also occupied a prominent second floor corner at the head of the escalator, while down the main floor was an exhibit of the Honda FCX fuel cell car and chassis demonstrator. [Photos from the event will follow in a separate article.]
An estimated 400 attendees, which included the media, investors, local EV afficionadoes, and Hollywood celebities, crowded around the vehicle, sipping wine, trying out the leather seats adorned with Phoenix's logo, and peering under the hood. I was probably the only person there who looked under the truck .
On hand to help officiate were the husband and wife stars of Living with Ed: Ed Begley, Jr. and the stunningly lovely Rachelle Carson. Also attending was the equally lovely Daryl Hannah -- with video camera in hand -- and the always regal Linda Gray. While the local press interviewed Ms. Gray and a bevy of other starlets -- most of whom I didn't recognize since my television programming tastes run from C-Span to the History Channel -- many of the guests lined up in the parking garage to take a spin in a second Phoenix, an event which would prove embarrassingly brief, it turned out.
One person I did recognize was long time acquaintance Rick Reinhard, who pointed out to me that the test drive vehicle pictured above sported the same tires that had recently been on the company's logo-festooned demonstrator, which just the week before had been on display during the White House South Lawn press conference.
Rick retired some 7 months ago from a long engineering career with Nissan and recently went to work for Phoenix-- but not before taking time off to fix up his house and play with his kids -- passing up a job offer from GM that was 8 miles from his home to work at Phoenix, 45 miles away in Ontario. That alone says volumes in my book about this little upstart of a car company, which once came within a $38 overdue electric bill -- ironically -- of declaring bankruptcy, one of its founders told me late in the evening.
A fair number of the party-goers were, in fact, investors in Phoenix Motorcars and this event was as much for their benefit as anything. While most of us sit back with not unjustifiable skepticism -- we've been down the road before -- these courageous folks have put their money were their hearts are, betting that this time, all of the pieces -- the batteries in particular -- have after more than a century of trying and failing, finally come together in a real, practical, affordable electric vehicle.
Clearly, Phoenix chose the right vehicle platform, a sport utility truck that will appeal to fleet operators and individual consumers, alike. According to company president Dan Elliott -- he's the gentlemen standing immediately behind George Bush in the South Lawn photo --- the company now has 375 orders and more coming in. In fact, it looks like they will shortly sell out their first year's production of 500 vehicles, some of which will be sold to eager consumers; the first name on that list being "Who Killed the Electric Car?" writer and director Chris Paine -- who was present. Ed Begley announced that he would be buying one and long-time EV World reader Earl Cox informed me that his was the third name on the sign up list.
Elliott took time as the festivities began to wind down to explain to me how the company hopes to eventually offer their vehicle at a price that more people can afford. The current price on the SUT is $45,000, which clearly means Phoenix is taking a loss initially. However, this is offset by California's still active system of ZEV credits. Any Type III zero emission vehicle sold in the State in 2007 and 2008 earns 40 credits for the manufacturer. Since Phoenix's SUT apparently qualifies, each vehicle sold is worth up to a maximum of $200,000 in credits. Assuming the company sells 500 vehicles in 2007 and another 500 in 2008, that's equal to some $200 million dollars in credits, which are held in a sort of escrow by the California Air Resources Board. (CARB). A Type III ZEV must be highway capable and recharge in minutes, not hours: the Phoenix clearly qualifies, at least according to all I've been told.
Phoenix anticipates that once the major car companies use up their own stock of credits earned from the previous MOU period in the late '90s and early 2000, which Elliott estimates is likely happen sometime before 2010, they are going to have to either introduce their own Type III ZEV, pay a $5000 fine to California for every credit they fall short or -- and here's what Phoenix is banking on -- buy credits from existing credit holders. How much the credits actually go for -- and it's possible that we'll see competitive bidding could take place between the major OEMs -- is between the car companies and credit holders like Phoenix. Elliott doesn't anticipate the price going over $5,000 per credit since that's the upper limit set by CARB.
The hoped-for outcome is a scenario where battery orders in the tens of thousands finally reach the critical tipping point in scales of production, which then start to dramatically drive down costs, ultimately ushering in the long-anticipated advent of an affordable, dependable electric car that is within reach of more than the affluent few.
And there is also talk of trying to get California to apply a $10,000 rebate to each electric car sold, which would then bring down final price of the Phoenix SUT to a more manageable $35,000, still pretty rich for most American's, but certainly within the reach of many.
Unfortunately, my decision to wait until later in the evening to drive the demonstrator proved the wrong one as events turned out, though I did get to drive AC Propulsion's wonderful eBox, which Stefano Paris had driven to the event -- more to follow on that in a upcoming article.
In one of those not-all-that-unusual technical glitches that seem to haunt high profile events of this nature -- I've seen similar things happen to all of the big carmakers at the most embarrassing moments -- the battery contactor on the demonstrator literally welded itself shut for some unknown reason. As long as no one turned off the ignition, people could keep driving the vehicle. Apparently, so I was told, someone forgot and inadvertently turned off the key and the ride-and-drive part of the party came to a unceremonious conclusion. The vehicle could be posed for publicity photos, but when the evening was over, I helped push it into its transport trailer.
Obviously that bug will have to be sorted out, as will the need to reposition the battery pack to get more ground clearance under the vehicle. Some of the EV experts on hand -- not a few of whom work for AeroVironment and have a great deal of experience in this area -- also noted the vehicle still had a couple of rough edges from their perspective, but again, that's be expected. I recall driving one of the early, preproduction Chevy Silverado mild-hybrid pickups and quickly discovered a significant mechanical issue that the company needed to resolve before it started selling the truck to consumers and fleets.
Of course, the big question mark in everyone's mind are the Altairnano batteries: will they be durable enough to perform over the life of the vehicle? At this point, they look promising, but only time will tell. There are more than just the hopes, dreams and dollars of a handful of investors and employees riding on Phoenix's grand experiment. The credibility of an industry -- often battered by a cruel past plagued by battery failures and more than its share of snake oil salesmen -- rests in the hands of tiny companies like Phoenix and AC Propulsion and Tesla.
All celebrities aside, the proof will be in the performance. If it does, Phoenix will have lived up to its iconic namesake.
For more photos and video from the Phoenix premier, visit Stefano Paris' web site.
blog comments powered by Disqus