Crunch Time Nears as Bright Automotive Awaits DOE, Investors

In early March the CEO of plug-in car startup Bright Automotive, John Waters, told us his company had two options if it was going to stick with its plan to start producing fleet vehicles in the fourth quarter of 2012: secure Department of Energy loans by the end of May or raise capital from private equity markets. Well, June has arrived and the company is still waiting for a final answer from the DOE and still in the process of raising private equity, Waters confirmed with us today — so things are moving slower than planned. As a result, Bright could have to scramble to stick with its production schedule, or delay it — an option not unheard of in the world of plug-in vehicle startups.

Depending on how long Bright ends up waiting for financing — either from the DOE or private investors — it could also face a race to catch up with plug-in models slated to roll out between now and 2012. As early as 2010, Pike Research anticipates that commercial vehicle registrations and fleet sales will begin to rebound from the current economic downturn, with fleet managers giving new attention to hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles. So if Bright encounters too many speed bumps, enough to push production to 2013 or beyond, it could see choice contracts coming up before it’s able to deliver.

At this point, Bright is still trying to raise private funds and working with the DOE on its request for $450 million — a slow process for all applicants, not just Bright. Today the company also announced two new requests for grants under separate stimulus-funded DOE programs. One of the new grant requests is for $18 million as part of the vehicle battery program under which GE, Planar Energy Devices and Khosla-backed General Motors technology partner Sakti3 have also requested funds. Bright said in its release today that it wants to use the grants to create a battery R&D center for its IDEA model and to establish a pack factory with a capacity of up to 75,000 battery packs annually.

The other request that Bright announced today — for $17 million — is through the Energy Systems Network, a coalition working to bring cleantech business to Indiana (where Bright has its headquarters) that includes Nissan (s NSANY), Duke Energy (s DUK), IBM (s IBM) and EnerDel (s HEV), among others.

Waters says Bright still remains on track to roll out in 2012 the IDEA fleet vehicle, unveiled in April and said to get a whopping 100 miles per gallon. He wrote in an email this afternoon:

We continue to be in discussions with the DOE regarding our $450M loan application. We are encouraged with the detailed discussions and the amount of dialogue that has taken place and we anticipate some type of indication in the next few weeks. If we receive positive indication from the DOE in this time frame, we are optimistic that our current production timing (Q4, 2012) will not slip.

The new DOE grant requests represent only a fraction of the $400 million that Waters said in March would amount to a “car company in a box” (the company ended up requesting $450 million) and allow Bright to scale production up to 50,000 vehicles per year by the end of 2013, reach profitability within the first year of production and repay loans within five years — and they won’t cover the ramp-up Bright envisioned.

Bright makes no mention of the 2012 launch plan in today’s announcement, instead focusing on President Barack Obama’s goal to have a million plug-in hybrid vehicles on U.S. roads by 2015. If the 2012-2013 goals, which Waters has acknowledged as ambitious, haven’t slipped out of reach yet, they may be moving in that direction — so it’s smart to be working out alternate routes.