Amateur Entrepreneurs

Charging Ahead: An Electric Car that Goes the Distance

Back in 1994, solectria was the Netscape of the auto industry, a whiz-kid-led company whose light, advanced-composite electric vehicles were challenging Detroit and the reign of the internal-combustion engine. The challenge seemed real, because California’s zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) mandate-requiring that 2 percent of all new vehicles sold in the state after Dec. 31, 1997, emit zero pollutants-promised to give the market for clean electric cars a big jump-start.

But 1998 is here, and very few of the cars one sees in California are Solectrias. Why? Is it because unfair lobbying activities by the big automakers led to the elimination of the ZEV mandate in 1995? Or because Solectria didn’t have the know-how or resources to scale up its manufacturing process quickly? Or because gasoline-powered cars still outpace electric cars in safety, convenience and affordability?

All these causes and many more appear to be at work in Charging Ahead, a sympathetic yet faultfinding history of Solectria’s coming-of-age. As author Joe Sherman tells it, MIT mechanical engineering student James Worden and the friends who followed him to Solectria in 1989 were at heart technology enthusiasts, not environmentalists or sophisticated entrepreneurs. Worden had started building electric cars as a teenager, and the ZEV mandate, also adopted by several states in the Northeast, meant he might profit from his passion. Solectria’s sleek prototypes won several racing tour victories in the early 1990s, persuading powerful partners such as Boston Edison and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to chip in. For a few years, it seemed that the time had finally come for a car that could be recharged rather than refilled.

But by 1995, when the first Solectria Sunrise rolled, the mandates were being dismantled, Solectria’s partners were getting frustrated with Worden’s controlling management style and the lack of a manufacturing plan, and the big automakers were debuting their own electric cars. Today, Solectria sells Sunrises and electric vans and pickups in low volume, but, to Sherman’s disappointment, the company and the industry still haven’t gotten out of first gear. He blasts the “Big Boys,” the major automakers, for allegedly mounting disinformation campaigns that swayed politicians and the public against the ZEV mandates. But other incidents in the book-such as Worden’s trip to the intensive care unit after bromine vapor from a leaky battery engulfs his race car-make it clear that electric vehicles, and the companies that build them, still have some maturing to do.

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