If EV’s Falter, Elkhart’s Ready to ‘Reinvent’ Again

January 27, 2012 by · Comments Off on If EV’s Falter, Elkhart’s Ready to ‘Reinvent’ Again 

Indiana’s Elkhart County is holding out hope that Think, the electric car company that set up shop there, can be resurrected by its Russian owner.

“We want them to be successful,” said Barkley Garrett, Elkhart’s economic development director, in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. “We’d like to see them meet all their numbers. Certainly sooner rather than later we’d like to see them up and operating, producing the vehicles they thought they would be.”

But if the car company doesn’t restart, Garrett isn’t concerned. “If they were to go away today, it wouldn’t cost the city much.”

So far, Elkhart is out only $1,500 in tax benefits given to the company.

Others believe this city of 50,000 will find a way to reinvent itself another way, as it has done throughout its history.

A few short years ago Elkhart County could have been named RV County. But as gasoline prices rose, it didn’t take long for the impact to hit Elkhart. Monaco RV, which at one point had $1.2 billion in sales making high-end RVs, was among the consolidations and closures that hit the area when it sold itself to Navistar and then shuttered local operations.

When Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005, Elkhart’s RV industry thought it was making a comeback because of the renewed need for portable and temporary housing. The bulk of RV orders, however, proved an illusion, masking the fact that real demand for RVs had declined precipitously, said Gregg Fore, president of Dicor Corp., an RV industry supplier based in Elkhart.

When the county’s unemployment topped 20% in 2009, up from 4% when the RV industry was at its peak, building electric cars looked like a viable future.

“One of our strengths is we reinvent ourselves,” said Philip Penn, who heads the local chamber of commerce.

For example, the city used to be the world’s largest band instrument manufacturer. The industry employed thousands from the late 1800s until the 1960s. One manufacturer, C.G. Conn, once employed 2,000 people.

“When the whistle blew for quitting time, you didn’t want to be in the way because, man, they’d come running out of there like ants,” Penn said.

According to the Chicago Tribune, when the bulk of instrument manufacturing moved overseas, Miles Laboratories, which was founded in Elkhart and best known for Alka-Seltzer, became the city’s largest employer. At one point, more than 4,000 people worked at the pharmaceutical-maker’s 1 million-square-foot campus.

But in the late 1970s, Bayer AG of West Germany, the world’s fourth-largest chemical producer, acquired Miles. By the 1980s, the Bayer campus essentially had been abandoned.

The city sold the property, turning over the campus to the Feed The Children charity for $1. The nonprofit today occupies a fraction of the campus, and the city plans to tear down many of the buildings.

Think isn’t the only green-tech company that has promised jobs that never surfaced. Two years ago, Indiana’s governor said Elkhart County would be the home of hybrid and plug-in trucks with old RV manufacturers partnering with young clean-tech companies.

Those deals never took place.

“How many are here today? None. How many received government money? All of them. Oops,” Fore said.

The county also has dabbled in alternative energy. “We’ve had our experiences with solar, wind and electric and, to date, we’ve not see those pay the dividends Washington promised,” said Dorinda Heiden-Guss, president of the county’s Economic Development Corp.

If another reinvention is in the works, Heiden-Guss says the county will have to raise the money because three visits from President Barack Obama haven’t brought much change to the unemployment rate.

Her department’s budget is scraped together from local town budgets and has just four employees, she said. “Our organization doesn’t have a dime more.”


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FedEx Adds EVs to Fleet, Four from FCCC

June 29, 2011 by · Comments Off on FedEx Adds EVs to Fleet, Four from FCCC 

FedEx Express, a subsidiary of FedEx Corp. and the world’s largest express transportation company, continues its holistic fleet approach to fuel efficiency with significant expansion of its lower polluting, energy-efficient vehicles.

Within the next two months, FedEx Express will place 24 new all-electric vehicles into service that includes four Freightliner Custom Chassis Corp. vehicles, according to a press release. The company s also expanding to three new cities and more than doubling its fleet to 43 all-electric vehicles while growing the diversity of suppliers it uses for electric vehicles.

At the same time, FedEx Express will be adding more hybrid-electrics, using composite vehicles and upgrading over a tenth of its conventional vehicle fleet to more energy-efficient vehicles.

“We are using efficient technologies that are readily available now, while investing in innovative technologies that we hope and believe can be vehicle workhorses for the future,” explained Dennis Beal, vice president of Global Vehicles at FedEx Express. “Our goal has always been to optimize and operate our vehicle fleet in an economically and environmentally sustainable manner, so that emissions are reduced while serving our customers in the best possible manner.”

FedEx Express is bringing new all-electric delivery vehicles to New York City, Chicago and Memphis, and diversifying the existing Los Angeles fleet. In all, FedEx will add into service 15 Navistar eStar electric vehicles, two FCCC eCell electric vehicles and two FCCC electric vehicle retrofits, and five Ford Transit Connect Electric vans to complement the current 19 all-electric vehicles deployed in Los Angeles, London and Paris.

Not just an expansion in vehicle count, these vehicles will be studied to help evolve all-electric vehicle technology and to establish a foundation of understanding on utility grid needs by modeling impact of future all-electric vehicle growth on the shared energy grid.

• In New York, FedEx Express will be working with GE and Columbia University’s Engineering School to study energy grid impacts in an effort to project how large vehicle deployments would impact the energy grid.

• In Chicago, FedEx Express will be comparing different all-electric vehicle technologies to determine what works best for its fleet needs.

• In Memphis, FedEx Express is retrofitting existing vehicles to make them all-electrics, saving resources through using existing vehicle bodies. And, FedEx has added five Transit Connect Electric vans from Ford Motor Company and Azure Dynamics to support the corporate Information Technology Asset Disposal program, driving regularly scheduled routes to pick up, recycle, reuse and dispose of IT assets.

• In Los Angeles, FedEx Express is diversifying its fleet, adding an FCCC eCell to its current four Navistar eStar all-electric vehicles, and is in the midst of adding 45 new FCCC-Eaton hybrid-electric pickup and delivery vehicles to its fleet.

“Different vehicles are appropriate for different routes,” explains Keshav Sondhi, manager of Asset Management for FedEx Express Global Vehicles. “The key is to use the right truck for the mission on the right route. FedEx Express is adding all-electric and hybrid-electric vehicles to dense urban routes that have a lot of starting and stopping. This use of regenerative braking and electric motors significantly improves the efficiency of the vehicles on such urban routes.

“On high-mileage routes, FedEx is upgrading vehicles with 4,000 fuel efficient, lower emitting BlueTEC clean diesel Sprinter Vans. Each Sprinter is at least 100% more fuel efficient than the most commonly found alternative it replaces. Since launching our first Sprinter in 2000, we have put close to 1.4 billion miles on these more fuel efficient vehicles, saving over 66 million gallons of fuel compared to their predecessors.”

FedEx Express has also been piloting five composite vehicles from Utilimaster in Detroit, Memphis, Jackson, Tenn., and Jonesboro, Ark. Dubbed “The Reach,” it is able to achieve 35% better fuel economy than its predecessor and has been performing well. The smaller, more efficient engine and low weight of the composite materials, which includes recycled rubber material, resin, fiberglass and poly core, compared to aluminum, allows the vehicle to achieve these fuel efficiencies.

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GE Ponders RVs for Recharging Electric Cars

March 14, 2011 by · 2 Comments 

Is the electric car charging station of the future a motorhome?

It could be in some circumstances, speculated Luis Ramirez, CEO of the Industrial Solutions Group at General Electric. Ramirez recently met with some consumers and customer groups in Oregon, and some asked whether it would be possible to use the engine of an RV to charge an electric vehicle (EV), U.S. Solar Market Insight reported. RV drivers often tow cars behind them as they travel on down the road. Coming up with a charging system for RVs would help open a niche market. Technically, it’s not impossible.

Ramirez and other GE executives are in the middle of a road trip to promote products such as the WattStation charging station and to create awareness about some of the issues that will face companies when EVs begin to hit the road in large numbers. It wasn’t your usual Silicon Valley audience. Instead of investors and job seekers, most of the attendees were executives from parking lot companies, some AAA representatives and many electricians — in other words, the people that are actually going to make this happen.

Navistar International Corp. is taking part in the tour.

Theft and security could become a problem for public charging stations. “There is a lot of copper in a charging station. We do have to worry about security,” said Ramirez.

In Europe, security is less of a problem because charging stations will have cables; drivers will be required to carry their own connections. The U.S. took a different approach. It lightens the load in a car, but it creates a potentially attractive target for those out there intent on stealing wire, manhole covers and other metal objects during this current commodity boom.

Speaking of commodity metals, scientists in GE labs are also working on electric motors that don’t require rare earth metals and use nonmetallic heat sinks. This is a significant development because rare earth materials like neodymium oxide have zoomed from $20,000 a ton in 2009 to $165,000 a ton this month according to my own spot check today.

Direct current is going to take off, Ramirez added. While the grid delivers AC power, distributing and using DC power within microgrids, datacenters or office buildings could help conserve energy by reducing the number of conversions power must undergo before it gets used. The conversions occur because most electrical equipment — batteries, motors, computers — actually run on DC. In a typical data center, power might get converted five times before it can be used to run servers; in a DC data center, the conversions can be reduced to one. Fewer conversions, fewer losses.

Back in December, Ramirez oversaw the $520 million acquisition of Lineage Power Holdings , which makes equipment for efficient AC-DC and DC-DC conversions. Other companies in this space include Validus DC Systems and Nextek Power Systems.

“With the right conversion architecture, you can bring efficiency to the 92-95% level,” he said, “DC architectures also use a lot less metal.”

One potential application: mining operations. Many remote mines have been completely automated with robotic trucks hauling dirt from deep inside the earth. Crushing rocks in mining operations alone accounts for 7% of the world’s energy consumption, he said. Switching to DC could help bring that number down.

One area, however, where DC will need some work is in high-speed charging stations. High-speed, or Level 3, charging is far faster than conventional charging and it relies on DC power. High speed charging, however, can accelerate the aging process in batteries. Research in this area is ongoing.

Consumers will likely have to drive the EV market, said Clarence Dunn, CEO of GE Fleet. (GE Fleet oversees its own fleet of 30,000 cars but also finances and manages fleets for others.) While fleet owners are interested in going electric, the price will have to come down through volume manufacturing before many fleet owners budge. And the only way to build volume will be with the consumer market.

Car companies are going to have to pay particular attention to the needs of the fleet buyers. Plug-in hybrids, particularly those retrofitted hybrids with lots of batteries in the trunk, are a difficult sell to companies with sales fleets. The trunk takes up the space the reps need for sample cases and other equipment.

GE, which wants to electrify half of its fleet by 2015, has to plan accordingly, as well. The average GE sales representative drives 85 miles a day. Ergo, a fully electric vehicle may not work for them, although a series hybrid like the Chevy Volt might be sufficient. Similarly, many in GE Health drive vans: not a great combo yet for batteries.

So far, pharmaceutical companies appear to be the first movers when it comes to electrifying fleets.

Battery swapping, the secondary market for batteries and other issues are hurdles the car industry and financing industry are going to have to overcome. “I do not want to finance a battery. That does not work for me,” Dunn said, or at least it doesn’t yet. If car companies can begin to prove that a battery will have an active life in a car for five years and that utilities will in fact buy partially depleted batteries for grid storage, bring on the documents.

The demographics of EV buyers do present some problems for utilities, said Matt Lecar, who oversees smart grid strategy at GE Energy. In California, a lot of the early buyers will live in Berkeley and San Francisco, where the grid is old and the power capacity for individual houses is somewhat low.

“I am sure if PG&E had their druthers, Fresno and Bakersfield would be the early adopters,” he said, because homes there already have mondo circuits to handle air conditioning capacity.

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Study: Alternative Vehicle Target ‘Achievable’

February 2, 2011 by · Comments Off on Study: Alternative Vehicle Target ‘Achievable’ 

Gurminder Bedi

Gurminder Bedi

While President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address displayed a big vision for electric cars in America, a new blue-ribbon study sponsored by Indiana University concludes that the president’s vision needs bold action from the auto industry, federal government and the scientific community to ensure those goals are realized, according to a news release.

The report, “Plug-In Electric Vehicles: A Practical Plan for Progress,” lays out the short-term and long-term steps the United States must take to be assured of a global leadership role in the emerging electric vehicle industry.

This study represents a first-ever evaluation of one of Obama’s chief environmental campaign goals — putting 1 million alternative-energy vehicles on U.S. highways by 2015.

“President Obama’s dream is appealing and it may be achievable, but there are big barriers to overcome before the mass commercialization of electric vehicles will occur,” said John D. Graham, dean of the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IU.

The chairman of the IU panel, former Ford Motor Co. executive Gurminder Bedi, stressed that “a successful national program for electric vehicles will require an unusual degree of cooperation between industry and government, and a clear focus on the needs and concerns of consumers.”

The 13-member panel’s work was released today (Feb. 2) at a news conference in Washington, D.C. Among its specific conclusions:

Obama’s goal, while achievable before the end of the decade, is unlikely to be met by 2015, both because automakers and suppliers do not have sufficient production targets, and the demand from consumers is not yet robust enough to hit the one-million target.

Uncertainty about reliability and resale value, coupled with a general lack of consumer understanding of Plug-in Electric Vehicles (PEVs), contributes to a lack of demand for these new products.

More importantly, the high cost of PEVs and challenges related to recharging the vehicles pose significant obstacles to broader adoption and acceptance of this new technology.

The panel also makes a series of recommendations to better ensure that consumers have a fair opportunity to make informed decisions about whether to purchase PEVs, including:

  • The federal government should create a national PEV demonstration program in up to 20 communities around the country to help motorists and consumers become more familiar with plug-in hybrid electric and pure electric vehicles, and create an instructive “pilot program” for consumers, utilities, municipal officials, dealers and manufacturers.
  • Additional cost-effective incentives to encourage more consumers to invest in these new vehicles should be enacted.
  • Broader investment in PEV infrastructure technology, particularly in recharging capability at the homes of potential PEV buyers, should also be a priority.
  • Long-term research and development investment by both government and the auto industry to help bring down the cost of batteries and related PEV technology must be enlarged.

“We believe that PEVs are an idea whose time has come,” Bedi said. “But it’s clear that the technology needs a redoubled investment in time, energy and money from both government and the auto industry before PEVs become part of our automotive mainstream.”

The report comes as the administration and Congress are preparing a fresh push for electric vehicles. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., last week introduced legislation that would more than double the $7,500 tax credit consumers currently receive if they purchase a plug-in electric vehicle. If enacted into law, the Levin bill could cost up to $19 billion over 10 years.

Separately, Vice President Joe Biden announced on Jan. 26 that the administration is seeking to create a competitive grant program worth up to $10 million apiece for up to 30 communities for the development of charging stations and electric-car requirements.

The U.S. is not alone in the quest to be a leader in the emerging electric vehicle industry. The IU report catalogues recent initiatives in progress in China, Korea, India and in the European Union, all of which pose competition to the U.S. for leadership in this key emerging industry.

The panel’s yearlong evaluation is the work of experts from government, the auto industry and environmental groups, including representatives from Ford Motor Co., the Center for Automotive Research, the International Council on Clean Transportation and others. The full report is available online at

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Cashen Pitches New Idea for Electric Vehicles

November 1, 2010 by · Comments Off on Cashen Pitches New Idea for Electric Vehicles 

Wil Cashen

Wil Cashen

Electric Motors and Vehicles Co. (EMAV), a global technology, product development and production company focused on rugged electric vehicles and electric vehicle technologies, today (Nov. 1) announced the expansion of its relationship with Mopar.

Wakarusa, Ind.-based EMAV will provide investigative R&D, design and engineering for the EMAV power regeneration unit (PRU) trailer, a patent-pending self-propelled electric vehicle power regeneration system that substantially extends the range of any electric vehicle, according to a news release.

The introduction of the PRU follows the Mopar – Jeep Off Road Camper/Trailer series, the first vehicle line engineered, tested and assembled by EMAV as a tier two supplier to Mopar; it is currently being sold through the Chrysler network of over 2,500 dealers in North America. EMAV intends to deliver further rugged tech products to the market in 2011.

The PRU is an evolution of the Jeep Off Road Camper/Trailers, integrated with electric control technologies developed by EMAV. This new electric car range extender is expected to hit the market in the second half of 2011, with a running prototype scheduled for Q1 2011.

The PRU will benefit owners of electric vehicles sold globally by making it possible to take an already capable electric vehicle on much longer trips, and enabling consumers to charge their electric vehicle where infrastructure does not yet exist. The PRU is intended to supply electric energy to any electric vehicle over the next 10 years while the government and the transportation industry establish the necessary national electric vehicle charging station infrastructure.

“For electric cars to be truly viable for a mass consumer audience, we need to bridge the gap between low-range electric vehicles that can travel moderate distances to electric vehicles which can truly become the sole family vehicle,” said Wil Cashen, founder and president, EMAV and formerly affiliated with Electric Motors Corp. “JD Power says that sales of electric vehicles will hit only 2 million in 2020 – that is slow adoption, much due to the current range of these vehicles. Our goal is to move the marketplace beyond the first generation of electric vehicles to more powerful and rugged cars that also have endurance. This will evolve the electric car paradigm from a supplemental to a primary car for consumers.”

Internally tasked with activating the lifestyle segment for Jeep as a tier two supplier, EMAV’s Tech Camper/Trailers offer the rugged design elements popular with off-road vehicles such as Jeep. The EMAV Tech Camper/Trailers have been engineered and trail-tested over 300,000 miles, becoming the first camper/trailer to win the coveted Jeep “Trail Rated” badge. EMAV’s Tech Camper/Trailers can be purchased in a number of designs to fit active lifestyles, such as camping, extreme off-roading, hunting, or fishing.

EMAV currently has patents pending for numerous electric vehicle power regeneration systems, vehicle electronics, and electric drive systems technologies, many of which are expected to be introduced to the global markets in late 2011. In the coming year EMAV will continue its strategic, incremental approach to product development with Mopar and through other new markets to introduce practical, common sense ideas that work.

For more information, visit

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Remy Intl. to Help Power First Electric SUV

August 10, 2010 by · Comments Off on Remy Intl. to Help Power First Electric SUV 

Remy International Inc. and AMP Holding, Inc. executives today (Aug. 10) signed a long-term electric motor supply agreement for the first-ever plug-in electric crossover vehicle.

Under the agreement, Remy will be the exclusive electric motor supplier providing the patented Remy HVH250TM for the custom AMP electric crossover vehicle conversions, according to a news release.

AMP, a company engaged in the emission-free electrification of OEM vehicles, earlier this year unveiled its 100% electric 2010 GM Chevrolet Equinox at the grand opening of its U.S. production headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio. Since the event, AMP has quickly moved into production of the AMP’d Equinox. By starting with the award-winning 2010 Chevy Equinox, AMP’s unique approach to creating an all-electric vehicle has enabled AMP to beat the competition and become the only company to bring a full-size, high performance American crossover electric vehicle to market.

AMP CEO Steve Burns said, “The entire AMP team is intensely focused on providing our customers with the highest quality products and services when they purchase their Amp electric vehicle. That is why it was critical for us to find partners whom we can trust and count on. Remy International is that kind of partner. Remy’s brand represents reliability and their electric motor is the best motor on the market today. We are very pleased to be working with such a strong company of individuals who share our values of quality and customer service.”

Powered by Remy’s HVH250 electric motors, the AMP electric powertrain has a range of up to 150 miles per charge, will reach a top speed of 90 mph and will go from zero to 60 mph in approximately eight seconds, with a charge voltage of either 110V or 220V. Aggressively priced for a 5-seat electric vehicle at below $50,000 (after government tax credits), the AMP’d 2010 Equinox brings the country’s only full-sized electric vehicle within reach of many Americans.

Remy International CEO John Weber said, “AMP continues to be a leading American made electric vehicle provider. We are proud to be a strategic partner in their innovation. Our relationship holds tremendous potential for both companies. As electric vehicles demand grows, so will the interest in larger electric vehicles like the AMP crossover. It drives wonderfully and makes no sacrifice in the amenities consumers expect. This family sized vehicle can rely on the Remy electric motors. Our motors are backed by over a billion miles of proven reliability.”

Remy’s patented High Voltage Hairpin (HVH) technology’s world-class torque and power density deliver added speed and range to AMP’s electric vehicles. Brands like AMP Electric Vehicles, GM, BMW, Aptera and Allison Transmission use the Remy HVH electric motor because of its superior technology, reliability and the speed to market that comes with Remy’s existing global production capacity.

Today, there are more than 80,000 customer-validated Remy motors on the road. With over a billion miles of proven reliability, Remy’s compact HVH electric propulsion motors are power-dense, lab tested and road proven.

For more details about the HVH250 Series electric motors visit the Remy website at:

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MVP RV in Due Diligence Stage of Private Equity Search

September 11, 2009 by · 1 Comment 


MVP RV's Envy toy hauler

MVP RV's Envy toy hauler

After months of searching for fresh capital to kick start production, Moreno Valley, Calif.-based MVP RV has located a private equity firm and is in the due diligence process leading up to inking a final agreement.

Partners Brad Williams, Roger Humeston and Pablo Carmona jointly told RVBUSINESS.COM today (Sept. 11)  they are hopeful the pact can be signed soon and production of the company’s travel trailers and fifth-wheels resumed within a month thereafter.

The owners, formerly with Thor California Inc., have $3 million in confirmed dealer orders ready to fill once production resumes. MVP RV halted production in early June when it ran out of money.

The U.S.-based private equity firm’s capital would not only be used to finance new construction but also to pay suppliers and make good on outstanding warranty claims, they said.

Williams would not disclose the name of the equity firm, the amount of its proposed investment or any other terms.

Their statement came on the heels of a related announcement on Thursday in which they said they formed a separate company – MVP-EV – to build electric vehicles for CT&T United, the American subsidiary of CT&T Korea Ltd. Those vehicles, from motorcycles and golf carts to small cars and buses, will be built in one of the buildings on the MVP compound in Moreno Valley.

CT&T is making its first push into the American market and eventually plans to employ as many as 2,600 people in the country, operating several factories along with research and management teams to market several models of battery-operated vehicles.

MVP-EV holds the West Coast franchise to build the vehicles, thereby having the potential of employing hundreds of workers in Southern California.

CT&T is not the source of the private equity capital in question, Williams said. “They’re (CT&T) not interested in RVs at all,” he said.

The RV and electric vehicle companies are separate but could well use some of the same suppliers, a prospect that became more likely as RV suppliers have come forward since Thursday’s announcement and offered their services, Humeston noted.

MVP RV has less than 100 suppliers, but the electric vehicle business will have some 400 separate suppliers, based on CT&T estimates.

Williams, MVP RV president and CEO, said he went public with the RV company’s progress in finding private equity in part to allay concerns by some suppliers that, amid Thursday’s announcement, the RV firm may have closed.  

On the contrary, MVP RV has a variety of vehicles in various stages of production on all its lines and continues to garner dealer interest in its products, Williams said.

Chief among them are the Coast, an aerodynamic, lightweight trailer, and the Envy, a fully-loaded a toy hauler. Both products were designed to fill the void left when Weekend Warrior exited the business, Williams said.


In July 2008, MVP RV Acquisition Corp., an affiliation of top executives at Thor California Inc., agreed to purchase Thor California Inc., a subsidiary of Thor Industries Inc.

As MVP RV, the company continued to manufacture the Wave, Summit and Jazz travel trailers and fifth-wheels along with Tahoe and Vortex toy hauler lines, previously produced by Thor California.

They’ve also developed new products such as the Beacon, a microlight trailer, and the Sonoma, an inexpensive, entry-level travel trailer.

The company was actively selling through nearly 100 dealerships in 11 Western states and three Canadian provinces. Williams estimated at the start of the summer that 65% of MVP RV’s products built in the first year have already sold

The company survived the credit crunch that began a year ago and was aggressive in developing new products, such as the Coast and Envy, but when orders began arriving in the spring, the company was out of cash and had to stop production. But it did not fold, Williams stressed. 

“We right-sized and cut and slashed expenses every way you could imagine,” Williams said earlier this summer. “We’ve positioned ourselves so that when we do come up running, our break-even is very low. We’re lean and mean and in position to take advantage.

“We were struggling with profitability through most of last year until this spring. We started to show a profit, which indicated all the changes we had made took hold. Then we got into this cash flow tug of war situation.

“The beauty here is, no bank holding us hostage. We have no long-term debt. Our intent is to get a cash injection and get squared away with our suppliers.

“The time is right for this; we think the worst is behind us. This is the best time to invest in an RV company,” Williams said.

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Electric Vehicle Plan Brings Hope to RV Capital

July 15, 2009 by · Comments Off on Electric Vehicle Plan Brings Hope to RV Capital 

Editor’s Note: This is the latest story written by as part of an ongoing project to report on the economic crisis in Elkhart County, Ind. The story appeared in The Elkhart Truth.

In the empty factories and laid-off workers in Elkhart County, entrepreneur Wil Cashen sees “unimaginable potential.”

Seeking to capitalize on the trend toward more energy-efficient vehicles, Cashen has a plan to retrofit pickup trucks with electric motors at several of Elkhart County’s large, dormant manufacturing facilities and sell them to utility companies.

A native of neighboring St. Joseph County, Cashen would like to see this hard-hit area — which touts itself as “the RV capital of the World” — become the country’s capital for electric vehicles.

“There’s a real opportunity,” Cashen said while walking through his field of dreams — a quarter-mile stretch of dormant industrial buildings around the monster Monaco motorhome factory in Wakarusa that closed last fall.

Opportunity, yes, but no guarantees.

Across the country, state and local officials, entrepreneurs like Cashen and even some of the nation’s biggest companies see dollar signs when they look at so-called “green” industries. Add in an estimated $85 billion in federal stimulus funds earmarked for clean energy and transportation projects, and you have a mad dash of sorts to gain a competitive edge.

“There’s no question that a growing number of states, cities and companies are jockeying to expand their share of America’s clean energy economy, and they see the stimulus monies as pivotal to that goal,” said Lori Grange, deputy director at the Pew Center on the States, a research group.

In a recent study, Grange’s organization found that the number of “clean energy” jobs — which range from weatherizing homes to building 300-foot-tall wind turbines — increased more than twice as fast as all other jobs from 1998-2007.

Now, with so much federal money flowing into these sectors, Grange expects to see “explosive growth.”

That’s certainly the hope in Elkhart County, where Cashen is seeking federal funds along with others. Among them: a startup that wants to assemble huge wind turbines here and across the Rust Belt; and a company that wants to put electricity-producing turbines in large water pipelines across the country.

electric-motors-logoCashen thinks the time is right for his company, Electric Motors Corp. –based in Malibu, Calif. — to dip into the electric vehicle sector, but his vision to transform the Elkhart region into the Detroit of the 21st century faces lots of competition.

For example, auto heavyweights Ford and Nissan and electric car startup Tesla in late June got $8 billion in loans from the U.S. Department of Energy to launch new hybrid and electric vehicles.

Also, Chrysler has made a pitch for $224 million in matching federal grants to produce a demonstration fleet of hybrid minivans and pickup trucks. Up to 165 vehicles would go to the U.S. Postal Service to test whether they are suitable for mail delivery.

In neighboring Michigan, Gov. Jennifer Granholm has vowed to make the state “the renewable energy hub of North America and the advanced-battery capital of the world.” She’s also built a “No Worker Left Behind” program that provides a $5,000 tuition voucher to retrain workers for “emerging” jobs like those in clean energy.

“Green is not the only sector we’re going after, but it’s really such a big deal,” she told business executives who gathered for a National Summit in Detroit in June. “We intend to lead the nation into energy independence.”

With so much activity on this front, even some proponents urge caution when it comes to embracing still-small industries, such as hybrid vehicle production, as the key to an economic turnaround.

“It is a smart move if we don’t push it too fast,” said Dave Cole, chairman of the nonprofit Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. “It has to have a strong economic foundation and that will take a few years.”

He added: “There’s a tendency for people to underestimate the cost and the competition involved.”

azure-dynamicsEven in the greater Elkhart area, Cashen’s initiative faces significant competition. A Canadian company, Azure Dynamics, has quietly been contracting with Utilimaster to assemble dozens of hybrid delivery vans in Wakarusa.

“We actually build them,” said Jay Sandler, Azure’s vice president of sales. “They” — referring to Cashen’s company — “talk about them.”

Like Electric Motors Corp., Azure is seeking stimulus money to further develop hybrid systems, according to chief operating officer Curt Huston. Hybrid RVs? “That’s very interesting to us,” he said. Fast cars a path to hybrids Cashen, for his part, took a roundabout path to the hybrid field.

He graduated from Penn High in Mishawaka, Ind., then spent much of his career around cars, usually fast ones: servicing, racing and selling Porsches in Germany and the United States. He later founded — and eventually sold — an automotive software company before semi-retiring in Malibu, where he builds replica Porsche 550 Spyders and became a Porsche guru to celebrities like Jay Leno and Kevin Dillon.

His vision for northern Indiana came into focus more than a year ago when he recalled his early days working at Holiday Rambler, an RV manufacturer that was later acquired by Monaco, where he says he saw firsthand the area’s strong work ethic.

With so many RV manufacturers scaling back or shutting down, Cashen realized he could find plenty of able-bodied workers and empty factories to help implement his unusual plan to transform Ford F-150 pickups into hybrids by replacing their engines.

Cashen hopes to sell the vehicles to utility companies, which would take advantage of the battery packs on the hybrids to supply line crews with on-the-spot electricity in areas where power is out, without noisy generators.

Cashen won’t talk about his conversations with specific potential customers, but Dave Meisel, director of transportation services at Pacific Gas & Electric Co. in California, believes the plug-in hybrid idea has some merit. “We think the technology has real potential,” said Meisel, who manages a fleet of 8,900 vehicles.

PG&E has 350 hybrid or all-electric vehicles in place or on order as part of an alternative vehicle fleet nearly 1,500 strong, Meisel added, and that should grow to become “a significant portion” of the overall fleet. But how big, he said, is still a big unknown given that the technology is still being tested.

In May, Cashen lined up a critical partner: Gulf Stream Coach Inc., a major motorhome manufacturer in Nappanee, Ind., which has agreed to spend $10 million to retrofit a massive, shuttered building for the assembly line.

Cashen and Gulf Stream estimate that the enterprise could create 1,600 new jobs by 2011 — making it by far the biggest potential new employer in an area where unemployment is near 20%.

Jerry Conover, director of the Indiana Business Research Center at Indiana University, likes the electric vehicle idea but adds that “it shouldn’t be the only job growth in the area,” since demand is dependent on government incentives and high gas prices — both of which aren’t guaranteed to last. One key to Cashen’s venture is obtaining tens of millions of dollars in federal stimulus funds from the Energy Department to develop electric motors for the drivetrains and, not insignificantly, money from the Labor Department to train workers in handling high-voltage systems.

Cashen’s strategy for dealing with uncertain federal funding is to ramp up his project slowly. But that also means there is little to show so far: No properties had been acquired through early July, and Gulf Stream does not yet have any F-150 plug-in hybrid prototypes available for viewing.

Still, many laid-off workers are hopeful that Cashen’s project will bring new jobs to RV-centered towns like Wakarusa, where many industrial parks look like cemeteries, replete with well-kept lawns but not a soul or a sound around.

Marv Burns, a Vietnam vet with 32 years in the RV industry, is among the 2,000 people who’ve applied for a spot with Electric Motors Corp. — even though he’s not really sure how the hybrid technology works.

That doesn’t matter, he said, “I do know that it’s brought hope.”

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