Bright Automotive to Hawk the Anti-Chevy Volt, But Where's the Money?

bright-auto-logoThe way Bright Automotive CEO John Waters tells it, General Motors forgot any lessons learned from its first foray into electric vehicles. Waters, who headed up design for GM’s initial EV-1 project, is skeptical that a hulking steel platform like GM’s Chevy Volt can be economical. Instead, he tells us, if you want to make a plug-in for the mass market at decent profit margins, you need to design around a smaller, lighter (read: less costly) battery pack.

That’s the tack Waters has taken with Bright Automotive’s first vehicle: a lightweight, aerodynamic plug-in hybrid. The Indiana-based startup was spun out of the not-for-profit think tank and consulting firm Rocky Mountain Institute a little over a year ago. Founded by Amory Lovins, RMI is famously committed to the idea of “lightweighting” vehicles to improve efficiency and reduce fuel consumption.

bright-auto-waters“We’re not limited by leveraging steel relationships,” Waters said, contrasting Bright’s “clean sheet” approach with GM’s longstanding ties to the steel industry. As a startup, he added, “agility allows us to tap into complete, solid business models and physics.”

At this stage, however, Bright remains long on vision and short on details. What we do know is that Bright’s first prototype car, said to have a 30-mile all-electric range and 400-mile extended range with a small gas engine, is slated to debut this May at Norway’s Electric Vehicle Symposium. It’s also clear that the company faces some serious financial hurdles before moving into production.

According to Waters, the company now needs to secure $400 million in Department of Energy loans or raise capital from private equity markets ($400 million over three years) before June 1 in order to reach its targeted U.S. rollout in the fourth quarter of 2012. Waters said Bright had been “well on its way” to raising enough capital last fall when the economy and credit markets seized up.

The $400 million prize, requested under the DOE’s Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing program, is what Waters calls the price of a “car company in a box” and Bright would use the funds for additional development of the vehicle as well as setting up manufacturing. It’s around the same amount requested by electric car startup Tesla Motors, which also says it would use the government funds to set up manufacturing for a mass-market model.

If all goes well for Bright with financing (a very big if in this economy), Waters expects to scale production up to 50,000 vehicles per year by the end of 2013. At that rate, and assuming fuel prices go back up (bolstering demand and justifying higher price tags), Waters said Bright could achieve profitability in the first year of production and repay loans within the next five years. Initially, the car will not be available to consumers (commercial or municipal fleets are more likely entry markets).

Bright is in talks with a number of potential battery suppliers in the U.S., Asia and Europe — mostly big, more established players, said Waters, a former VP of business development for the lithium-ion battery maker EnerDel. Asked if the company might consider working with a fellow startup, Waters said, “We’re talking with some that are in the wings, unknown, but realistically they won’t be able to meet our timeline.”

Photo courtesy Bright Automotive

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