by Jim Motavalli for Mother Nature Network, March 13, 2012

Lots of other electric car companies are flashier, but this China/California hybrid has a hyper-cautious strategy that makes sense as the electric vehicle market gets off to a slow start.

Following the demise of Aptera and Bright Automotive, it’s time to give a good hard look at Wheego Electric Cars. It’s Wheego, definitely the tiniest and least well-capitalized of the three, that’s still ticking — and a big reason for that is its small-is-beautiful philosophy.
 
Wheego, based in Atlanta, makes the two-passenger LiFe, a Smart-sized carsourced from China, with electric drivetrain and batteries installed in California. That’s the same basic formula as the much higher-profile Coda, but the latter went through a number of delays and has yet to get a car on the road.
 
The LiFe, which I’ve driven in California and Atlanta, isn’t going to blow anybody away with performance or high-tech add-ons. Its 30-kilowatt-hour lithium battery pack is coupled to a 60-horsepower electric motor. Top speed is 65 mph, and you get there eventually. The air-conditioning is optional. It’s a commuter car, priced at $32,995.
Wheego is on the market, though not in a big way: The company has built precisely 36 cars since the first one rolled out for Earth Day 2011, and has sold something like 34 of them, says Mike McQuary (right), the ex-Internet entrepreneur and music business maven who heads the company. “Our dealers [I count 27, from Tokyo to Arundel, Maine] are clamoring for cars,” he told me. “Three quarters of our dealers have never had a car, but they’re being very patient with our strategy.” And that strategy has been to build cars only when it gets the money — whether through venture capital or selling out its inventory.
 
The market for two-seat cars is pretty limited, but Wheego is planning to add a crossover vehicle chosen from among three contending Chinese manufacturers. It won’t appear tomorrow — getting the new car through crash testing will probably take two years. 
 
I gotta say that Wheego is playing it smart, given that the market is moving slowly anyway. Here’s the first car being delivered to the West Coast:
 
The company has precisely 7.5 employees (including McQuary), up from five the last time I asked. Both Aptera and Bright expended a lot of resources reaching for the brass ring — Department of Energy Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing(ATVM) funding. The Department of Energy manages a pot of $25 billion and has spent only $8 billion of it (Tesla and Fisker were both recipients, with more than $500 million each).
 
It’s really tempting to go after that money, but in the wake of Solyndra and in an election year, the DOE is playing it super-careful. It just turned down long-term contender Carbon Motors (which wanted $310 million to build green police cars), and has committed only $50 million in funding since its big commitment to Fisker in 2009.
 
Wheego’s problem with the DOE was, again, thinking too small. “We initially sought DOE funding, but the feedback was that we needed to be more oriented towards job development,” McQuary said. “But our ambition was never to create a full-on assembly plan that involved forging meta. We think we have a viable business plan for building electric cars, but it really doesn’t create a lot of jobs. So the DOE came back to us and asked us if we wanted to rewrite the plan to make it more aggressive in terms of job creation. But we opted instead to keep our integrity — we didn’t want to be disingenuous on our application. And, frankly, we’ve always had just enough funding to get to the next stage. Not getting the loan has made us a tougher company, and very smart at how we deploy capital.”
 
Wheego is a tortoise, but the hares aren’t faring so well. “I see us as a company that creeps out instead of leaping out,” McQuary said. And 36 cars is definitely creeping out. Michael Brylawski, a vice president at the lamented Bright (which made a really useful plug-in hybrid cargo van), told me that the ATVM process distorted the market for private capital. If you didn’t get a DOE loan, he said, the markets looked askance at your prospects.
 
McQuary agrees. “Companies like Tesla and Fisker, which got the loans, have been better able to raise follow-up capital,” he said. “But at this point I’m hoping all the companies succeed, because a rising tide will lift up all our boats. I’m rooting for Coda to get its car on the road, and I’m rooting for Tesla’s Model S, too.”
 
More flush times could be ahead for Wheego. McQuary told me he closed a deal with a major investor last week. “When people learn who it is, it will really increase market confidence in us,” he said. The company has prospects, and a more diverse product line in the wings.
 
But if Wheego in fact doesn’t make it, no huge mess will have been created. McQuary would only have to lay off 6.5 people. And the CEO has a fallback job — he runs Brash Music, an Atlanta-based record label with an eclectic roster. This year, a contemporary Christian album it issued won a Grammy nomination.
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