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Last week, Bright Automotive, a startup based in Anderson, IN, unveiled a plug-in hybrid utility van designed to travel 50 miles on half a gallon of gasoline. The company plans to start producing the Idea vehicle in large volume by the end of 2012, and it hopes to sell 50,000 a year starting in 2013.

At a time when dozens of automakers are developing new hybrids and electric vehicles, Bright is notable because of its history. Its CEO, John Waters, designed the battery pack for the EV-1, GM’s first electric vehicle, and the company is a spinoff from the Rocky Mountain Institute, a highly regarded nonprofit based in Boulder, CO. The institute is famous for proposing in the mid-1990s to radically change the design of cars to make them more efficient. The Idea is the partial realization of its Hypercar concept, a hybrid vehicle that would use as little as one-fifth the amount of fuel that today’s vehicles use. It does so by combining a hybrid of gas and electric propulsion (and eventually fuel cells instead of the gas engine) with lightweight composite materials, an aerodynamic design, and more efficient electronic accessories. The Rocky Mountain Institute had started another company to develop the Hypercar, but that vehicle never made it into production.

Bright thinks that its new business model, which involves selling vehicles to commercial and government fleets rather than to the public, could help make things different this time. Fleet customers look at the total cost of ownership, Waters says, not just the up-front cost, which is higher for plug-in hybrids, since they incorporated both a gas engine and an electric motor and also require a costly battery pack. He says that over the life of the vehicle, fuel savings will make up for the higher initial cost. Several potential customers have already signed letters of intent to purchase the vehicle once it’s in mass production, says Lyle Shuey, Bright’s vice president of marketing and sales. The van was designed in cooperation with a number of potential customers, including Duke Energy–an investor in Bright–and Cox Communications.

Recent government support for more efficient vehicles could also help the company succeed. Bright is applying for $450 million in government loans to scale up production. Other incentives, such as tax credits for plug-in hybrids in the stimulus package will also help. “Obama’s emphasis on the electrification of the vehicle makes this the perfect time to be in the industry,” says Evan House, the company’s vice president for advanced battery engineering.

Like the Hypercar, the Idea will be lightweight and aerodynamic, although the design doesn’t quite go to the extremes of the original concept. For example, rather than using a carbon-composite frame, it uses a metal one, although it’s made of aluminum instead of steel to reduce weight, and the designers have incorporated composites elsewhere in the vehicle. The van weighs 1,500 pounds less than conventional vehicles of its size, the company says. Reducing that amount of weight reduces the size of the battery pack needed for the vehicle’s 30-mile electric range, which also reduces the overall cost of the vehicle, House says.

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Credits: Bright Automotive

Tagged: Business, Energy, energy, electric cars, battery, Volt, plug-in hybrid, lithium-ion, Toyota, transportation, Chevrolet, Bright Automotive, iron phosphate

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