The French Connection
By Bill Moore
2005 is Wavecrest's year!
At least according to company CEO and President Roy Barbee. It is the year -- after more than five years of research and development -- that Wavecrest goes commercial with a number of new products from a new mountain-style electric bicycle to a DIY electric bike kit, to a host of other products about which he was a bit more cagey, but which he promised to reveal to EV World readers when the time is right.
Besides wanting to catch up on developments at Wavecrest since I last interviewed General Wesley Clark -- then Chairman of the company -- I also wanted to talk to Barbee about news that his company had just signed a joint venture agreement with Matra, a specialty auto design and manufacturing firm in France that originally made its name in European auto racing forty years ago. The announcement just happened to coincide with the US Secretary of State's visit to France and the conciliatory gestures she made in a clear effort to try to mend fences after a difficult first term with the Bush Administration.
I began by asking Barbee to brief me on what's happened at WaveCrest in the last six to twelve months.
Using the classic military metaphor, he told me, "We are proceeding on a broad front to take our electric propulsion system into quite a number of markets in the US, in Europe and in Asia". He noted that the company's first commercial products, the TidalForce M750 and Io electric bikes have been "well-received" in the marketplace in the US. He also announced that the company will be exporting European-adapted versions of their bikes to Europe this year.
The first new product to debut this year -- in April -- will be a new "mountain-style" bike using the same drive as on the M750 and Io, but with a different frame. A "do-it-yourself" kit will follow, letting cyclists who want to electrify their favorite bike do so using a WaveCrest hub motor and battery pack, which Barbee told me any bicycle shop should be able to install. A third new product will be an auxiliary battery pack, though there's been no decision made on whether it will be fitted to rest between the frame members or over the rear wheel.
"Watch this space," Barbee told me, a remark he would make later when talking about all the products the company plans to roll out in 2005.
From Formula One to Formula Electric
We moved on to WaveCrest's agreement with French carmaker, Matra, which made its reputation in the 1960s building winning Formula One racing engines. Barbee recalled that Jackie Stewart won a Formula One championship with a Matra car. (Stewart raced for Matra Sports in 1968 and 1969, the year he won the championship, and some 19 years after the founding of F1 racing in Europe. Source).
Matra not only built F1 cars and engines, but also some limited production -- comparatively -- vehicles including a the world's first mid-engine sports car -- the DJet -- and a French MVP -- the Espace, that Renault manufactured. The company is part of the Groupe Legardere. In my research, I even came across a Matra Bicycles website in The Netherlands, though it doesn't appear to be related to the French Company of the same name.
According to Barbee, Matra was re-evaluating the automotive market in Europe and its future direction. The French company apparently sees a very bright future with "explosive growth" for electric and hybrid-drive technology and after doing its "homework", Bernand Labet contacted Barbee, who had previously spent ten years living and working in Europe. Barbee took obvious delight in telling me that Labet considers WaveCrest's electric motor technology the best "on the planet". That fateful phone call took place in October 2004 and resulted in the press release this week.
I asked why a company with such a long history in auto racing and large passenger vehicle design and development would start off by building electric bicycles.
"It's a very big market in Europe", Barbee responded. "It's a logical and reasonable place to start. But let me just emphasize that our discussion with Matra involves a whole range of light electric vehicles; and we are going to introduce our TidalForce bikes in France and later in other parts of Europe as they are and suitably modified, as the case may be, for the European regulatory environment. But we're collaborating with Matra on a broad range of light electric vehicles".
As the agreement is currently structured,WaveCrest will provide Matra with electric propulsion systems that the French company will assemble into vehicles of their own design, "for sale in France and Europe", Barbee noted
French Government Support
As is obvious from the photo above, the agreement between WaveCrest and Matra has the blessing of the French government, driven, in large measure, over its concerns for the environment. Quiet a few French cities participate every year in Car-Free days where French citizens are asked to leave their cars at home. Paris occasionally enacts car travel restrictions into the city when air pollution becomes severe. Shifting to electric drive not only would help reduce noise and local air pollution, it also has the added benefit of reducing oil imports and greenhouse gas emissions.
Seventy percent of France's electricity comes from nuclear power, so moving to battery electric vehicles is a very logical next step for a country where small, low-horsepower urban vehicles like the "ZENN" are street legal or the Matra M72 concept car.
"Bernard Labet and myself met last week with two ministers of the French government; the Minister of Transportation and Environment and the Minister of Finance, and both of them expressed keen interest in this technology and in the collaboration between Matra -- a company they know well and have a lot of respect for -- and WaveCrest. At those discussions, they express a great wish to understand what we were doing and to help these two companies bring this technology to Europe.
"I was very pleased with our discussions," Barbee continued. "I think that the Ministers of the French government and others want to see this type of technology introduced in Europe and have a real impact on air and noise pollution and fuel consumption, and that sort of thing. So, we've been welcomed," he said enthusiastically. "No question about it, and we're delighted".
As for the strained relations during the past three years between the United States and France, Barbee commented that, "Colin Powell said it best last year. The United States and France have been married for 250 years and also in marriage counseling for 250 years".
"You know, from time to time, various governments in one place or the other, will not see eye-to-eye on everything in the world, but the underlying attachments and values for France and French people and Americans are the same, and they are just a delightful group of people to work with," he told me.
Prior to joining WaveCrest, Barbee -- who is an engineer by training -- spent twenty years in strategic consulting with the Boston Consulting Group and Strategic Planning Associates. He then "retired" and got involved in biotechnology and fuel cells. A mutual acquaintance introduced him to WaveCrest last year. Impressed with both the people and the technology, he accepted the offer to become CEO and president.
Barbee explained to me that WaveCrest sees a natural progression for its technology moving into specialized two and three-wheeled vehicles. From there he sees a promising market in all-electric and hybrid-electric All Terrain Vehicles or ATVs and Neighborhood Electric Vehicles or NEVs, followed by golf cars. Eventually, he sees "drive-by-wire" technology and high-power hub motors as the future of electric drive technology in passenger cars.
"Wavecrest is actively developing products in every single one of those application", he said. "And I might add, that there is a whole range of applications that we are developing in the industrial area... We are developing advanced drive systems for water management, underground mining applications, for marine use and other industrial and semi-industrial areas.
"Beyond bikes, there is an enormous market in Europe for scooters and also motorcycles," Barbee replied when I asked him what he sees as the "first fruit" of this trans-Atlantic collaboration. "We are most definitely going to be involved in both of those markets".
Wrapping up our discussion, Barbee reiterated that 2005 is WaveCrest's year of commercialization and that I should "watch this space" for announcements. "I think we will have the opportunity to talk again as this develops... I think this is going to be a big success".