Kurrent: Kute and Kapable
By Bill Moore
The story of the Smart Lab Open electric car is a bit complex. It started out as an Italian project that due to financial complications, ended up licensing the rights to the design to at least two separate parties: a Mr. Takaoka in Japan, where it is called the Girasole, and to Michigan-based American Electric Vehicles , where it's called the Kurrent.
Continuing the steady trend of Neighborhood Electric Vehicles (NEVs) away from the golf car paradigm set by Chrysler's GEM car and the now-abandoned Ford Th!nk Neighbor, the Open/Girasole/Kurrent is intended to be an ultra-light commuter car that just happens to be lumped -- in America, at least -- into the quasi-golf car category defined by FMVSS 500, the federal motor vehicle safety standard that limits this class of vehicle to 25 mph top speed and operation on streets 35 mph or less.
But according to Scott Thornton, American Electric Vehicles' president, the little two-seat electric-powered runabout is capable of twice that speed given a bit larger motor and differential. Having made a living selling conventional automobiles, Thornton and his partners saw what he calls an "emerging market" for electric vehicles.
"We connected with an Italiian designer who had this vehicle and did not have the wherewithal to be able to sell it in the United States. We aquired the license and began manufacturing. We've got about 12 dealers, so far and doing real well on sales."
How well? Thornton says they've booked 2000 orders to date, enough to keep them busy for a couple years, at least.
"After working in the automobile business, selling SUVs, creating categories and doing branding, this is such a wonderful... challenge, because America and the world needs a vehicle like this. It is an emerging market and getting in on the ground floor of an emerging market like this from a marketing, sales and business standpoint is... an opportunity that we couldn't pass up."
At the moment, the company has 28 employees doing assembly at their newly-acquired, 70,000 square feet facility in Wixom, which was formerly a General Motors design facility. Another twelve employees are on the administrative-side of the company.
"We have two lines going and we are gearing up to do about ten vehicles a day," he told EV World. He figures that by the end of the year, the company will have a total of about 2,700 orders for the 48-volt vehicle.
For Thornton, what sets the Kurrent apart from its competitors is its design, which I suppose could be said about the Dynasty IT, the ZENN, the GEM, Reva, the Nice, the latter two which are not presently available in North America.
"It's a little simpler. It requires fewer batteries [and] is, therefore, a lighter vehicle. In the electric business it is all about range, and weight and range have a direct relationship...
"Essentially, an electric car is an electric car. Our car has 400 parts or so. Most electric cars are very simple. The design and what it says about you is, I think at this point in the industry, a real important and determining factor. These cars sell to early adopters. They sell to people for who this is not their primary form of transportation. It is generally a third or fourth vehicle, maybe for a vacation home or in terms of a fleet, it would be for a company who wants to make a statement about their brand. Therefore, design is much more important. We, I think by far and away, have the cutest design in the industry today.
Under the cuteness and egg-shaped aluminum frame, the current behind the Kurrent comes from four 12-volt AGM lead acid batteries that give the car a company-advertised range of 40 miles. The DC motor produces 4.1kW and the vehicle can be recharged from fully discharged to fully charged in 8 hours.
Thornton notes that most Americans drive their conventional cars less than 30 miles a day and 80% of those trips are under 10 miles, well within the range of the Kurrent, especially if it could travel faster than the government-limited 25 mph. He also explained that owners and dealers are telling him that switching to more advanced battery chemistries is an unnecessary expense. The current performance of the Kurrent is adequate to their needs.
"We're learning a lot from the marketplace on how these things are used," he noted, adding that while most people -- beyond the early adopters -- understand the rationale behind the concept of a small, all-electric community runabout, they don't see how it fits into their personal lives yet.
He gave the example of his sister who owns one in New Jersey, just outside New York City, along one of the commuter train lines.
"She could not believe how it has changed her life. She said, I don't ever drive my gas(oline) car during the week. All I have to do is drive this car because, you're right, I only drive trips that are two or three miles, three or four times a day. It's sort of an awakening and more a realization of how little you really do need a gas(oline) car. That's one of the things we're learning, at this point."
Supports Medium Speed InitiativesUnlike his chief competitor GEM, Thorton is very supportive of initiatives like those in Montana and Washington State to revise, extend or create a "Medium Speed Electric Vehicle" category that ups the top speed forf cars like the Kurrent to 35 mph.
"We think that 35 mph in a 45 mph speed limit makes it much more of a practical application, and much more of a universal vehicle to be able to travel like that. So, we're very supportive of that. From a manufacturing standpoint, all that's required is a different motor with a little higher power, a different differential with a different gear ratio and it's no sweat."
As to the question of passenger safety in a vehicle the government says must not go faster that 25 unless it has been thoroughly crash tested, Thornton said, "Vehicle safety is very important to us." But he added a critical caveat that should the government require the kind of safety testing expected of mainstream manufacturers whose vehicles have top speeds in excess of 100 mph, such regulations would likely drive everyone out of business.
He personally has no qualms about having his vehicle do 35-40 mph since it is already designed to do up to 50 mph in Japan, protecting passengers in the egg-shaped frame pictured below. His big worry is trying to drive on of these vehicles on 45 mph streets where other motorists in conventional cars think they can drive at 50-55 mph. That thought gives him pause.
"I am not comfortable with our car, or any of our competitors cars, going on 45 mile an hour roads where people are going 55 mph. I don't think that's safe, personally. It's a neighborhood electric vehicle and the idea is... pick anyone of a thousand cities up and down the [American] East Coast. Take Maplewood, New Jersey where my sister lives. It's a beautiful small town... and every road is 35 mph. If you could go 35 on 35 it would be great. And that's exactly what this car is designed for."
Thornton said that he didn't think it would cost more to upgrade the Kurrent to do 35 since it involves a different motor and differential, which should be same cost as the original set. The batteries wouldn't need to be changed, he observed, adding that he already has the necessary motors and differentials in stock to supply to his dealers in Washington State and Montana.
The company offers two models: the NV1, which is the $9,800US base model without any options other than those required to meet FMVSS 500; and the NV2 which includes a heater, MP3 player/radio, special paint stripes, steering wheel package and other "cool stuff" and retails for $13,900US.
While AEV continually gets requests to sell the vehicle in Canada, they currently can't be sold there with the exception apparently of British Columbia. So, the company is focusing exclusively the U.S. market with the strongest interest and support on the West Coast and Colorado. Interest is also building in Southeast states from North Carolina down through Florida. While there is interest in Wisconsin and Illinois, the latter state just passed legislation that essentially bans NEVs.
At the moment, most of the parts for the car are sourced from overseas, but Thornton said his goal is to eventually have some 70% of the components of U.S. manufacture. He also announced that the company is developing a four-door version.
As to the future of EVs, he sees a gradual convergence of electric vehicles with NEVs at the bottom and hybrids at the top. As EV technology spreads, he sees the gap narrowing between the two in terms of functionality, but he also hopes that there will always be a place for low-speed vehicles like the Kurrent. He pointed out that there are 2000 golf carts in Sun City, Arizona that do double duty as neighborhood transport. Peach Tree, Georgia has 54,000 homes, each with a garage for a golf cart. Many of these couples and families could replace one of their gasoline cars with a NEV like the Kurrent.
The car comes with a 12-month, bumper-to-bumper warranty.
To listen to the complete 27-minute interview use either of the two MP3 players above or download the MP3 file to your computer for transfer and playback on your favorite MP3 device. The URL is: http://www.evworld.com/evworld_audio/scott_thornton.mp3.