Blog Post

Smart Readies U.S. Electric Car Demo, Tesla Battery Tech Inside

Electric Smart cars are coming stateside this fall, with Tesla battery packs in their bellies. Penske Automotive subsidiary Smart USA, the exclusive distributor of Daimler AG’s (s DAI) Smart models in the U.S., today detailed its plans to launch a pilot fleet of 250 electric Smart Fortwo mini-cars in October 2010, ahead of the model’s 2012 commercial launch.

This pilot program comes as part of Smart’s larger plans to roll out 1,500 electric Fortwo test vehicles in Europe, the U.S. and Canada, as well as parts of Asia — a project for which Daimler has tapped electric car startup Tesla Motors to supply battery technology.

Smart USA said in its release Tuesday that it plans to launch the pilot program in “key electrification leadership cities and Department of Energy grant areas,” and it’s looking for green-minded and passionate companies, municipalities, organizations and individuals to test out the vehicles in the program. As Bryan Hansel, CEO of electric truck maker Smith Electric Vehicles, has explained, an ideal early adopter for plug-in models is more of an “advocate” than a mere customer — someone who will help the company solve any problems that arise rather than getting frustrated with the inevitable kinks of a new technology.

Daimler bought a 10 percent stake in Tesla last year with an investment of $50 million (Daimler later sold 40 percent of its stake to Abu Dhabi’s Aabar Investment), and tapped the startup to supply up to 1,500 battery packs and chargers for a trial of the electric Smart Fortwo.

Daimler’s Thomas Weber, who is responsible for group research and Mercedes-Benz car development, explained at the time of the deal announcement just over a year ago that the main goal was to get an electric car on the market as fast as possible.

As Tesla has acknowledged in its filings with financial regulators, however, the startup has “no guarantee” that it “will be able to secure future business with Daimler as it has indicated its intent to produce all of its lithium-ion batteries by 2012 as part of a joint venture with Evonik Industries AG. If Daimler goes through with this, we are likely to lose the only customer in our powertrain business.”

While specific partners for the 250 vehicles in the U.S. Smart pilot won’t be announced until later this year, the San Jose Business Journal reports that the cars will be leased for a 4-year period at about $600 per month in San Jose, Calif., Portland, Ore., Indianapolis, Orlando, Fla., and the corridor running between Washington, D.C. and Boston. For comparison, BMW opened its 450-vehicle field trial of the electric Mini E to drivers in the Los Angeles-Orange County region and New York-New Jersey metropolitan area, leasing the cars for $850 per month.

Top photo courtesy of Daimler. Lower photo is a screen grab from Daimler and Tesla’s press conference last year.

Related research on GigaOM Pro (subscription required):

Cleantech Financing Trends: 2010 and Beyond

IT Opportunities in Electric Vehicle Management

Electric Vehicles Give “Mobility as a Service” a Jumpstart

One Response to “Smart Readies U.S. Electric Car Demo, Tesla Battery Tech Inside”