Phoenix Rising... Off-the-Shelf
By Bill Moore
For Phoenix Motorcars' Dan Riegert, the fastest way to resurrect the electric car industry is off-the-shelf.
After discovering that there were virtually no manufacturers of viable, full-functioning electric cars in America -- despite a CalSTART listing of some sixty supposed EV makers -- Riegert and his partner, Dana Muscato decided they'd build their own.
They would take off-the-shelf parts and build an affordable, highway-capable battery electric car that anyone would be delighted to drive. And so the long-lamented, battery-powered Phoenix rose from its own ashes, and in this 35-minute long MP3 interview Riegert recounts the travails of that rebirth.
The story begins back in the 1990s when Riegert and Muscato decided to open up an electric vehicle store in Ojai, California. They would sell a broad range of EVs from bicycle to motor scooters to full-functioning battery-powered cars. But as they began to work their way down CalSTART's list, they quickly discovered that telephone numbers were disconnected or companies had yet to build a vehicle; not a promising start.
Ojai, California is halfway between downtown Los Angeles and trendy Santa Barbara. It's been known since the 1930's as a Hollywood celebrity retreat. Riegert selected it not because it of any large industrial base, but because of its lifestyle and the strong environmental ethic of the region, which he believes drives a solid regional interest, if not national one, in Zero Emission Vehicles or ZEVs.
He related to me a discussion he had with a highly-placed individual in a large California Toyota dealership when the maker of the fabulously successful Prius was also offering the RAV4 EV. Demand for the battery-powered SUV was so strong, the dealership asserted, that it started putting names on a waiting list.
Supposedly, word of the list got back to Toyota and the dealership was instructed to not only stop taking names but to also deny that such a list even existed; a ploy also adapted by General Motors for its EV1 electric car, as confirmed to EV World by at least one GM employee, leaving the distinct impression that the large OEMs wanted to make sure California's ZEV mandate was perceived as a failure.
"Overall, my impression is that they weren't committed to producing these types of products", Riegert told me.
So, if the big guys weren't going to do it, he and Muscato would.
They looked at Solectria, AC Propulsion and Enova electric drive systems, settling on the latter's 90kW, 120 HP drive motor and controller. Picking the motor maker would be easy compared to choosing a battery chemistry.
They quickly ruled out lead acid. When they looked at NiMH, their attorney discovered that Texaco/Ovonics, who holds patent rights to nickel metal hybrid battery technology, had stipulated in its licensing agreements with battery makers around the world that its chemistry could not be used to power electric vehicles in North America.
When Riegert went to talk to them, he claims they would consider working with him on large format NiMH batteries for cars, but that it would cost him a million dollars up front, again leaving one to conclude that the company didn't want to see the technology used in vehicles that required electricity, not gasoline to operate.
Next the Phoenix team investigated Evercel's nickel zinc battery, going so far as to have it certified in California, only to discover that while the batteries worked fine in Oxygen motor scooters, it had serious reliability problems in larger automotive applications.
While Riegert and Muscato recognized the potential of lithium chemistries, the price at $5-10 per watt hour was simply too expensive to consider, especially compared to lead-acid at 25-30 cents per watt hour and NiMH at 50-75 cents/watt hour.
"We were back floundering around for a new battery source".
About this time, the influx of lithium batteries into the portable computing, digital photography and mobile phone markets dramatically drove down the price to $1 a watt hour, still expensive, but doable.
And the company Riegert turned to? You guessed it. Valence out of Austin, Texas.
"So far, the product has been beyond everything that they claimed it was", he enthused. "That's quite a different experience from most of our experiences with battery manufacturers".
(How's that for a testimonial?)
Phoenix ordered a set of 100 Amp hour batteries from Valence and extensively bench tested them, as well as running them through exhaustive charge-discharge cycles. The numbers coming in were so convincing and reassuring that Phoenix decided to run them through the California ARB's (CARB) certification program. It received official certification this past March.
While efforts to find the right drive system and power source proceeded slowly, Riegert and Muscato had a much easier time with the chassis. In keeping with their "off-the-shelf" strategy, they chose the well-established Street Rod industry to provide the actual car, picking a 1937 Ford Cabriolet Coupe as their springboard to more utilitarian models destined for fleet service.
This approach meant the company didn't have to engineer and fabricate its own chassis. After this, Phoenix could put any type of body they wanted on it, initially picking the Coupe as their attention getter. The individual front suspension is a Ford Mustang Two-type and the rear is a Ford 8.8 independent rear suspension.
With the equivalent of 35kW hrs of battery capacity from the 100 Amp hour Valence Saphion battery pack, the Coupe -- which is clearly not designed for maximum aerodynamic efficiency -- has a range of 120 miles in simulated suburban driving, and 116 highway, again on a dynamometer. Zero-to-sixty is 9.43 seconds. The governed top speed is 95 mph, with a theoretical top speed of 120.
The Coupe is now certified by CARB for sale in California. Phoenix is also an approved-NHTSA auto manufacturer in terms of safety testing, though it has elected to take a couple of allowable, temporary exemptions for small manufacturers, including the requirement for airbags. It won't have any initially.
Assuming you're interested in buying one, what will it set you back?
Riegert explained that the company is in a transition phase between being a custom, one or two-off builder to a small volume manufacturer. As a result, if you absolutely, positively have to have one and money is no object, a custom-built Phoenix Coupe will run you about $100,000.
"If we can garner sufficient capital, we are moving to mass producing the product and that time frame is probably over the next 12 to 18 months". When this happens, Riegert is projecting the price to drop to the low $40,000 range.
"Our ultimate goal is to be competitive with the internal combustion vehicle," he told me, adding that once the company gets to volume production of several thousand vehicles annually, the price of the battery pack will drop "by a factor of four".
"With some volume, we can substantially reduce the cost of manufacturing; and we get into large volumes, I think we can be competitive with internal combustion vehicles".
To get there, Phoenix isn't planning to rely solely on individual consumer sales, but is actively pursuing fleet sale opportunities. They have a pick-up design and four-door sedan in the works based on the chassis and drive train that underpin the Cabriolet Coupe. Riegert explained that the 1992 federal Energy Policy Act or EPACT requires government entities to purchase zero emission vehicles if they are available, which they haven't been, by and large. He hopes that the sedan, in particular, will enable him to take advantage of what he considers a "captive market".
"We see an enormous market and very high profitability in manufacturing electric vehicles", he said, adding that an electric car maker like Phoenix will also garner very valuable clean air credits, which can be sold, he believes, adding substantially to the company's profitability.
"I could take orders today for several thousand vehicles if I had the manufacturing capability".
To get there, Phoenix's board has authorized the sale of stock to help fund the pathway to mass manufacturing. Riegert said that both individual and institutional investors are responding to the offer. Accredited investors can invest any amount, while the rest of us are limited by Security laws to $2,500.
The company has a standing purchase order from a Sacramento cab company for the first 20 vehicles, the first of which will be delivered in the near future. This is likely to be followed by a large fleet order from another firm, Riegert stated.
So, with a combination of lithium-ion battery technology, a dependable electric drive train and a savvy engineering and marketing strategy, it looks like Phoenix is on the rise.