One thing is sure: The hybrid, tandem-seat 3-wheeler in the works at Oregon-based startup Green Lite Motors is no Prius. Less certain is whether there’s a market for the 4-feet-by-8-feet vehicle, which features “smart standup” technology that Green Lite President and CEO Tim Miller says will let the vehicle lean smoothly into turns and automatically right itself when it comes to a stop. But Green Lite just snagged one of the coveted regional finalist slots for the national Clean Tech Open business plan competition, and Miller sees a window of opportunity for this kind of vehicle.
The vehicle, now in third-generation prototype and able to get up to 100MPG, according to Miller, is the inaugural model from Green Lite. The design remains several steps away from commercial production, and faces high hurdles to win over consumers accustomed to having either four or two wheels on their rides.
A handful of large automakers have also experimented with long, lean (and leaning) vehicles — most recently Nissan (s NSANY), with its Land Glider concept at the Tokyo Motor Show. Miller described that concept as “validation that people are willing to explore these different forms for efficiency.”
Comparisons to Aptera, which is also developing highly efficient 3-wheelers (the electric 2e and hybrid 2h, both said to get the equivalent of 300MPG), are tempting. But Miller emphasized Green Lite is developing a different beast, notably because of the footprint of the two vehicles. Despite its unusual body shape, the 2e has a footprint closer in size to a typical hybrid sedan, said Miller. In fact, Aptera promotes its design as being “just like a linebacker poised for the blitz,” with a wide, agile and stable three-point stance. Green Lite’s model, on the other hand, can have a smaller footprint with the tandem seating because of the lean/standup technology, which Miller said provides “a dynamic riding experience for stability.”
Designs and features aside, the difference between the two startups when it comes to crossing the Valley of Death (where many ventures die for lack of funding at a key development phase), commercializing these vehicles and building sustainable businesses around them may be funding. Aptera is well-funded by high-profile and deep-pocketed backers, including Google.org, Idealab and David Gelbaum’s Quercus Trust, which have helped convince legislators on Capitol Hill to rewrite the rules on what qualifies as an “auto” for federal funding.
Both Aptera and Green Lite could benefit from that change, which allows “a fully closed compartment vehicle designed to carry at least two adult passengers” and get at least 75MPG (or equivalent, for plug-in models) — rather than just 4-wheeled autos — to qualify for loans under the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing program. “It’s a welcome change,” said Miller. “It applies mainly once we’re in manufacturing, but that will help our investors down the road.”
Green Lite is now trying to raise $500,000, and the startup remains at least two funding rounds away from commercialization, said Miller. It’s hoping to find angel investors to help it “further evolve” the hybrid drive system, and refine the smart standup tech and body design. That’s not easy in this economic environment. “A lot of the angels who would be looking at this have been slower,” said Miller, as a result of the downturn.
But the Clean Tech Open recognition has given the company “a new level of visibility.” If Green Light can raise money in the near term, Miller said, Green Lite will be showing off a product late next year, and delivering the models in the first half of 2011.
The game plan, said Miller, is to assemble the models in Oregon using many components from local suppliers, and some from overseas. Green Lite is in talks with startup ventures “in the controller area” and for battery systems, said Miller, but it’s more likely to integrate motors, batteries and other components from established, proven suppliers initially. “We don’t want to take a whole lot of risk on other people’s technology,” he said, “when we’re just coming off the blocks.”