Boston-Power Plowing "Full Steam Ahead" on Saab EV Project

The shaky status of Saab — the loss-making auto brand that General Motors threatened to shut down late last year before finally reaching a deal with specialty car maker Spyker — cast uncertainty around the first publicly announced demonstration of battery maker Boston-Power’s devices in plug-in vehicles. The dust has now started to settle, and Boston-Power CEO Christina Lampe-Onnerud tells us the project is going “full steam ahead.”

Spyker, which agreed to pay GM at least $74 million in cash for the brand, released plans today to operate Saab as,”an independent performance-oriented niche car company with an industry-leading environmental strategy,” and announced the goal of making it profitable by 2012. Lampe-Onnerud told us in an interview yesterday that the Massachusetts-based startup now has “people deployed on the ground” in Sweden (she declined to specify how many), and Saab is still engaged in the project. 

Heading into the Swedish EV project, Lampe-Onnerud said, “We knew there was some business risk.” But the potential gains and opportunity to learn about deploying its batteries — currently used as premium upgrade batteries for Hewlett-Packard (s HP) laptops — in electric vehicles and figuring out “the ideal handshake” between the battery and the drive train, made the collaboration a “no brainer” for Boston-Power. She said the startup is “thrilled with Spyker coming in.”

Other partners in the EV coalition, which is receiving funding from the Swedish government, include electric powertrain developer Electroengine, project incubator and manager Innovatum Technology Park, and Swedish power industry trade group Power Circle. According to the coalition’s December 2009 announcement, the group has built a small number of demo models and plans to produce more than 100 vehicles in 2010.

According to Lampe-Onnerud, Boston-Power has other auto projects in the works. While the company is “trying to be very humble with our customers,” and let them make any announcements about planned plug-in vehicles and battery suppliers under consideration, Lampe-Onnerud said Boston-Power is involved with automakers that are testing vehicles at various scales and stages — from tens to thousands of cars per month. “This is not a real market, it’s an emerging market,” she said. “So every project is one-off.”

Despite the supply contracts automakers ranging from General Motors to Fisker Automotive have recently handed to LG Chem, A123Systems and other battery makers (and the battery ventures that companies like Nissan and Daimler have established) to support upcoming plug-in vehicle lineups, Lampe-Onnerud sees the very nascent electric vehicle market as still fairly open for battery makers. There’s a common perception that “all automotive companies have picked their batteries. Not in our experience,” she said. “Everybody will need multiple sources.”

There’s room for “large, competent battery players” that are “very likeminded” with legacy automakers, said Lampe-Onnerud, but also for “agile battery players able to respond” quickly to an evolving market. For now, low-volume projects are the name of the game for Boston-Power in the EV space. Running up against capacity constraints, Lampe-Onnerud said, “20,000 cars would sell out our capacity…We have to be careful in allocation of cells.”

For the foreseeable future, any expansion in production capacity will most likely take place overseas. After the Department of Energy denied Boston-Power’s request for $100 million to set up manufacturing operations in the U.S. last year, Lampe-Onnerud said, “We went right back to China.”