June 13, 2007
The ultra fast charge electric SUV

Altairnano rolled out its new all-electric sport-utility vehicle for shareholders at the Grand Sierra Resort last week. Most came away impressed -- and optimistic.

Until recently, electric vehicles have brought to mind Samuel Johnson's observation about a dog walking on its hind legs: "It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all." With few exceptions, voltmobiles have been clumsy, expensive and slow. Throw in the need for several hours to recharge after a short trip, and they weren't attractive to most drivers.

But this is the age of nanotechnology, of making extraordinary things of ordinary materials. Altairnano has worked many of the kinks out of batteries using the new science. According to Robert Goebel, vice president of sales, the new SUV can cruise easily at freeway speeds, reach Sacramento on a single charge and have its batteries recharged before you can finish your latte.

"The cost of driving 130 miles is about $3," said Bryon Bliss of Phoenix Motorcars of Ontario, Calif., working with Altairnano on the project. "And you can recharge in as little as 10 minutes."

Altairnano provides the batteries for the SUV, scheduled to go on sale in 2008. A Colorado company, UQM Technologies, builds the motors, and Phoenix installs them in the vehicles, which are sourced from a Korean manufacturer Bliss won't name.

"It's (sold) in Europe," he said, and meets strict European crash and safety standards. Phoenix hopes eventually to build its own vehicles, but at this stage it's focusing on the power train.

Why the secrecy about the car's origins?

"We don't want people to say, 'It's a Ford.'"‰"

It isn't a Ford, but Bliss' point is that everybody involved wants customers to think of the Phoenix as an electric car, not as something else with an electric motor wedged in.

Finding fuel

There are obstacles, even with gasoline at $3.49 a gallon. Probably the biggest is availability of fuel: You can build cars to run on anything from corn oil to cord wood, but if consumers can't find it, they're not going to buy.

Altairnano will address that by offering the SUV and a similar pickup first for fleet use. The range is enough for many commercial applications, and workers could return to a central garage at night to recharge.

With eventual public sales in mind, though, company officials said Altairnano is already talking with Pacific Gas & Electric, California's largest utility, about a web of "rapid charge stations." With conventional 480-volt, three-phase service, they could top off batteries during a coffee stop (recharging at home, with the same 220 volts that runs the clothes dryer or stove, would take about five hours).

No one can attest to the vehicles' long-term reliability yet, but in theory, there's less to go wrong. An internal combustion engine is a melange of parts hammering up and down at high temperatures. That they last as long as they do is a monument to metallurgy. An electric motor, by comparison, is simple and lightly stressed.

"You can count the parts on your fingers," marveled Bob Tregilus of Reno, a longtime electric car enthusiast who showed up at the meeting on his home-built electric motorcycle. "An (internal combustion engine) has 500 parts."

Electrics also require less maintenance. Bliss said it's not unusual for one-third of the vehicles in a gas-powered fleet to be out of service at any given time for oil changes, tune-ups and the like. Electric cars need none of those things.

Altairnano officers aren't naive about their chances of cracking what's proven to be a very tough market -- but they are looking past the immediate. The SUV as it exists today requires about 300 watts to travel a mile, Goebel said. A compact-sized car should use no more than 100 watts per mile. Add a few years' worth of improvements in the evolving science of nanotechnology to the already refined powerplant, and a range of 400 to 500 miles is plausible. Reno to Las Vegas on 10 bucks' worth of juice? It's not fact yet, but it no longer seems like science fiction. Read