By Bill Moore
Good ideas are often born too soon. The trick is to keep them alive long enough for the rest of us to catch up. Th!nk is one of them.
The company that eventually became Th!nk Nordic, once a unit of Ford Motor Company, came into being some fifteen years ago with the dream of providing the motoring public with an affordable, urban-friendly, electric-powered commuter car. Pivco, as it was originally known, engineered a small, two-seat runabout that used NiCad batteries, a tubular aluminum frame and a dent-resistant, thermoplastic body.
According Michael Eimstad, Th!nk Nordic's manager of public relations and marketing, Pivco built approximately 120 prototypes it called the CITI Bee, some 40 of which ended up in the United States as part of a nascent station car program in San Francisco.
Despite early teething problems with the cars, they demonstrated that the idea of community shared vehicles had merit. So, the company invested heavily in upgraded engineering to bring the car into closer compliance with accepted automotive reliability, handling and safety standards.
While the result was a safer, more reliable and aesthetically pleasing vehicle, the effort ended up driving the company into bankruptcy by the late 1990s.
It was at this point that Ford Motor Company, faced with trying to find a way to comply with California's Zero Emission Vehicle mandate, bought the company for an estimated $10 million, giving the car the A286 model designation and a new marketing moniker: the Th!nk City.
On a conference call from Th!nk's headquarters in Norway, Eimstad told EV World that between 1999, when the A286 model was launched, and suspension of production in 2002 to make way for the newer, A306 model, the company built 1,005 of the Th!nk Cities, some 300+ that ended up, again, in America as part of various fleet and consumer lease demonstration programs in New York State and California.
But just as the company was gearing up for production of the A306 model it had co-engineered with Ford Motor Company, the Detroit auto giant announced it was selling the company. Since then, Th!nk has contracted to some 50 employees, retaining much of its core R&D competency. But since 2002, it has not built any production cars. The A306 program has been mothballed for the time being, while the company returned to its original roots of the car share concept first demonstrated ten years earlier in the city by the Bay.
Today, Th!nk, which is located some 60 km outside of Olso in Aurskog, continues to refurbish and support the 650-700 cars that are on the road in Norway, including one belonging to the household of Norway's crown prince. It also has several promising new product research and development programs in the works, including the innovative Th!nk Public.
I asked Eimstad what the status was of the 360 cars that had been the center of the nationwide ReTh!nk protest against Ford the summer of 2004. Rather than ship the cars, which had been brought into the country under a temporary waiver, back to Norway, Ford initially decided it would recycle them, a euphemism for crushing them to absolve it of any future product liability claims.
Bowing to environmental and political pressure, Ford agreed to ship all 360 cars back to Norway where Th!nk Nordic would refurbish them to resale through a number of Ford dealerships in the Scandinavian country. Eimstad reported that all the cars were now back in Norway. He estimated that about 160 have been processed and that the remaining 200, because they have air conditioning kits on them, will be retained for parts inventory to support the current fleet in Norway.
Eimstad said that when the refurbished Th!nk Cities where funneled out to the dealers, they discovered what he said was "fantastic demand" for the cars.
"They have waiting lists that are five to six times longer than the number of cars they have. The dealerships are now saying, we want environmentally friendly cars to sell. They want to set up expert areas where they sell clean cars."
Unfortunately, this public demand in Norway doesn't mean that Th!nk can resume the now-stalled production of the A306 model. He explained that as redesigned by Ford, the new model is simply too expensive for the Norwegian market.
He explained that clean cars like the Th!nk are in such high demand because of the favorable incentives -- not the least of which is gasoline that is $7-8 a gallon. Electric cars are exempt from paying the toll on the ring road around Oslo and other large Norwegian cities. They are exempt from paying the annual road tax. They get to park for free. Finally, they also have access to the buses-only lane, which saves suburban commuters heading into and out of Oslo 30 to 45 minutes a day. Eimstad said this is probably the biggest incentive for people wanting to buy an electric car.
While Th!nk isn't planning to gear up production, Eimstad believes that his country's demand for cleaner vehicles is going to compel Ford, at the very least, to offer the Escape Hybrid and possibly an electric car, someday. [Ford did experiment briefly with a lithium-ion battery electric-version of its popular Ka model minicab.]
He said that when Ford bought ailing Pivco, it proved somewhat of a culture shock going from being a small, independent company to part of one of the world's largest corporations. On the plus side, the company learned a great deal from Ford about world-class automotive engineering standards
"A lot of the process is what we learned the most from".
"It's not always easy to be part of a big company," he added. "We didn't always agree with everything that Ford wanted to do, and in the end, if Ford didn't want to be in the EV business, then it wasn't in our interest to be owned by them. We thanked them for the time that we were a part and that we learned a lot. But now we're moving on."
Going Th!nk Public
Moving on at Th!nk Nordic now means it is focusing its engineering and marketing efforts on the Th!nk Public with financing from its parent holding company Kamkorp in Switzerland. Kamkorp is owned by Kamal Siddiqi, an Indian entrepreneur whose holdings also include Frazer-Nash, which supplied the drive motors for the Public.
Eimstad pointed out that while electric cars can solve the problem of local air pollution, they can't reduce traffic congestion. The Public is designed to address both issues by getting more people to use fewer vehicles through the car-share concept.
By having 5-10 people use the same car in a day, Th!nk sees the Public as a way for cities to "take back public space" that is increasingly encroached on by the need for more and more parking spaces, as well as cars on the road.
The company first identified the operational zone of the car as the urban centers or major European cities where the speed didn't have to be more than 50 km/hr (35 mph). This allowed them to make the car relatively short (3 meters/9.75 ft) and strikingly tall (nearly 2 meters or 6.5 ft.).
"It's a good-sized basketball player", Eimstad commented. "You would never do that in a car that goes 100 mph, but if the car is only going to go 35, you can allow yourself to do that. You can get into the car easily. Have room for four. The car is not much longer than a two-seater smart.
"We've ended up with a product that is more niche-oriented, but it is better suited for the job that we feel electric cars are now best suited to."
The Public uses four Frazer-Nash inboard wheel motors, making it four-wheel drive. Power for the electric motors comes from the MEA ZEBRA battery, which Th!nk has experimented with for several years. Eimstad said the company has had a good experience with them.
Besides seeking to integrate the Public into public-transit and car share programs in Europe, Th!nk also sees them competing in the Neighborhood Electric Vehicle or NEV market space, including industrial and university campuses and gated communities.
The car is engineered to meet Europe's M1 standard for safety, with the exception that it has a waiver for airbags since they are ineffectual at speeds below 50 kph. The car seats four in a 1-3 seating arrangement. The rear seat folds up so that a single driver can also haul suitcases or boxes.
Th!nk envisions the Public being deployed around a system of stations where they are picked-up and dropped-off, and where they are recharged. Drivers would register with the program and carry special RFID (radio frequency ID) cards that allow them access to any available vehicle. For example, a station might be located near a commuter train terminal. The driver picks up a car and drives to a station near his workplace. Other people use the car during the day to run errands. In the evening, the original worker picks up a another car from the station and drives it back to the train terminal.
Computers would track the distribution of the cars throughout the system to ensure they are being used to their fullest.
At the moment, the company is still developing its early prototypes, a process Eimstad said requires passing some 470 different types of tests. Once the car passes these tests, then Th!nk has a number of customers who want to test it themselves before they buy them. Two countries in particular, France and Italy, have expressed the most interest in the car at this point, but Eimstad believes the Public can be marketed all around the world.
The target price is $20,000 each.
A306 "On Ice"|
As for the much-anticipated A306, that project is currently "on ice". Before Ford pulled the plug, the car was engineered to the One PP (production prototype) standard.
"It's a totally amazing car and has qualities on a par with some major manufacturers. It's kind of on a different planet from some other EV s, and we're very proud of it.
Eimstad believes redesigning the car could get the costs down, but the company hasn't the resources to it at the moment.
"The level of investment is big and we would need an industrial partner to do that", he admitted, noting that there are other issues as well, including setting up an entirely new dealer network, which Ford already had in place.
The company also recently partnered with Raufoss Fuel Systems, MEA and Hydrogenics to develop a hydrogen fuel cell version of the car. The 10 kW Hydrogenics fuel cell stack isn't large enough to drive the car itself. Instead, it acts as a range extender by recharging the MEA ZEBRA battery, giving the car an estimated total 250 km range. Raufoss is providing the 700 bar hydrogen storage tank.
The first prototype is nearing completion and the company plans to build a total of five in 2006, which it will lease to various hydrogen demonstration projects around the world who need cars but can't get them or afford them from the large OEMs. This would offer them a relatively lower cost alternative.
Th!nk's CEO Christopher Neal joined the discussion noting that cold weather testing of the hydrogen system will commence in a few weeks in Germany before actually installing it in the prototype car.
He acknowledged that subfreezing weather poses a challenge for any fuel cell stack and that is what’s great about being located in Norway, because the technology can be tested to its limit.
The same applies to Th!nk Nordic itself, which continues to keep moving forward financially, as well as technologically.
"It's difficult. I wouldn't pretend that its otherwise," Neal answered. "We're a smaller organization now, so it's obviously very challenging for us now, but we‘re still here. We have a good track record of survivability, if you want to put it that way. We've been around a long time. We have a lot of expertise and competence in the field of EVs, arguably the highest concentration of EV expertise anywhere in the world."
When asked if the world is now prepared to adapt EVs because of the price of fuel or concerns over national security, Neal responded that looking at Norway, it took a long time to help people get over the psychological barrier of driving a limited-range electric vehicle.
"We see there is a huge, latent demand in Norway for this type of vehicle," he said, cautioning that until fast-charging becomes practical, electric cars will always be confined to a few small niches in the market.
"Having said that, I think there are plenty of spaces in the niches for all electric vehicles and I think the market’s more than big enough for plenty of people to come into.
"This is obviously a period of transition and we are seeing an enormous amount of interest in the company now and in what products we will be able to offer," Neal stated.
He commented that the high price of oil is great for the company because it's forcing people to re-evaluate the true cost of motoring, both economic and environmental.
Neal didn't rule out the possibility that someday Th!nk could put the A306 into production.
"It won't be a cheap vehicle, but it will be a fantastic vehicle."