Bootstrapped startup Lorax Motor Works has a love-hate relationship with India’s Tata Motors (s TTM). The team, based in Hood River, Ore., and working on a three-wheeled electric “human utility vehicle,” wants to follow Tata’s lead in supplying ultra-low-cost vehicles in developing countries. But as founders Adam Kravetz, Aaron Blake and Tris Tarantino told us in an interview in San Francisco this week, they don’t like the idea of millions of people who don’t currently own cars driving the Tata Nano, which still runs on gasoline.
Lorax’s Hauler combines bicycle pedal power with a battery pack that can be charged via a solar panel, or by plugging in at a standard outlet. Blake describes it as a “water buffalo replacement” for carrying up to 300 pounds of water, food, farming supplies or other cargo (groceries and a couple laptops for Lorax’s initial target market: eco-minded city dwellers). It’s about as fast as a trotting water buffalo — the electric motor can power it up to 20 MPH — and is priced on the high-end at $2,660 for the basic plug-in version, or $3,260 for the model that comes with the solar charging kit.
In that respect, Lorax and Tata aren’t exactly going head to head. The Nano, the so-called “people’s car,” is a four-seater that has a max speed of about 65 MPH and a price of about $2,000 in India.
That isn’t stopping the Lorax team from aiming for part of the Nano’s market. But the group, which met at Cornell and came to California this week to present at the university’s entrepreneur network’s Silicon Valley mini-conference on the future of automobiles, has a lot of work to do to achieve their goals. Or even quit their day jobs, which involve financial services, engineering and fire fighting.
To ramp up production, and potentially one day produce larger electric cars like the Aptera 2e, Lorax is trying to raise venture capital or funding from a philanthropic venture like Google.org. Kravetz tells us that Lorax hopes to use a first round of funding to help finance efforts to sign on U.S. bike shops as dealers, starting in California, with the goal of winning over green-minded consumers who could use the Hauler for urban commutes that require more carrying capacity than a bicycle offers.
But Lorax has designed the Hauler to offer benefits specifically for developing economies, too. The battery packs and electronics “pop off” the Hauler easily, so they can be used to store and provide energy for rural buildings. In Kathmandu, Nepal, the team is working on a small deal with an adventure tourism company drawn to the potential for green marketing, but also as a way to reduce vulnerability to events like the gas dealer strikes that halted Nepal’s fuel supply back in 2006, and again this summer.
Obviously Lorax is a very early stage venture and who knows how far they’ll get. The startup represents just one of a growing number of ventures hoping to carve out a piece of the market where Tata has been racing (despite delays) to grab an early lead. And with prices in the thousands of dollars, the Hauler is not geared for the mainstream, although Lorax hopes wealthier, zealous early adopters in the U.S. will help fund deployment in developing markets (in combination with grants from NGOs).
lf Lorax is able to find a demographic that wants a sturdy, several thousand-dollar electric hauler, larger vehicle manufacturers may be able to serve that market better — or at least faster, by driving down costs and using their global reach to expand more quickly. But according to Adam, it wouldn’t be a total loss, since “We’re trying to get a revolution started here.”
In the end, Lorax is putting a new spin on a strategy about as old as the automobile itself. By targeting “rural small farmers,” he said Lorax is taking a cue from Ford’s Model T, initially developed with that same group in mind. The Hauler “even looks kinda like it,” Blake said: “chunky, gnarly, overbuilt.”
Photos credit Lorax Motor Works