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Summary:

While Fisker is in the spot light for failing to pay back its close to $200 million loan from the DOE, there were a half dozen other alternative car startups that wanted loans from the DOE but were rejected. Was the DOE’s ATVM performance all that bad?

V-Vehicle on the Hunt for $100M to Build Plastic Car

The Fisker debacle is shining a spotlight on the influence that venture capitalists have had — or have attempted to have — on government support. The Wall Street Journal published a piece late last week highlighting emails from Kleiner Perkins partner Ray Lane asking for movement on approval of a loan from the Department of Energy for fuel efficient car startup Next AutoWorks (formerly called V-Vehicle).

V-Vehicle: DOE Decides Against Loan for Stealthy Car Startup

Next AutoWorks didn’t receive the loan. And rightly so. Next AutoWorks made Fisker look like a good idea (both companies were backed by Kleiner Perkins, by the way). The company struggled right out of the gate with its gas-sipping, low cost, plastic car, and never went anywhere with it.

But there were another almost half dozen alternative vehicle startups that asked the DOE for loans out of the Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing Program (created in 2007 and funded in 2008) but that didn’t receive loans: Bright Automotive, Aptera, Coda, Think, and Carbon Motors. And these are just companies that publicly discussed the loans with the media.

Car startup Loan status Car Cars produced Private backers
Tesla Motors Awarded, $465M, full payment received. All electric sedan the Model S. Previously made all electric Roadster. Have reached a rate of 20K Model S cars per year DFJ, VantagePoint, DBL Investors.
Fisker Automotive Awarded, $529M, $192M received. Extended range electric car the Karma, and lower priced Atlantic. 2K Karmas made, zero Atlantics Kleiner Perkins, NEA, broker Advanced Equities.
Bright Automotive Not awarded, applied for $450M loan. plug-in hybrid IDEA light cargo fleet vehicle None, shut down Feb 2012 spinoff non-profit Rocky Mountain Institute, GM Ventures
Aptera Not awarded, applied for a $150M loan. 3-wheeled and 4-wheeled all-electric tear drop shaped car None, shut down Dec. 2011 Idea Lab, NRG Energy, Google.org
Next AutoWorks (formerly V-Vehicle) Not awarded, applied for $321M loan. Fuel efficient, cheap, plastic four-seater None, cancelled factory late 2011. Google Ventures, T. Boone Pickens, Kleiner Perkins
Coda Not awarded, applied for $334M loan. All electric sedan. Unclear, reportedly less than 100. Hit with layoffs, a recall. Partners with Chinese battery maker Lishen and deal with Chineses automaker Great Wall Motors Company.
Think Not awarded. The all electric Think City. Unclear, dozens. Went bankrupt for the fourth time in 2 decades. GE, A123 Systems, Ener1, Element Partners, RockPort Capital Partners, Kleiner Perkins
Carbon Motors Not awarded, applied for $310 million. Diesel car for fleets. Unclear, but company seems to be MIA.  Unclear.

Tesla and Fisker were the only startups that received funding from the ATVM program, and half of Fisker’s loan was withheld. The close to $200 million that went to Fisker represents around 2 percent of the entire ATVM loan portfolio advocated. The bulk of the loans went to the big automakers, Nissan and Ford. The DOE became much more cautious with this program in 2011 (coinciding with Solyndra’s struggles), and has since frozen the remaining $16.6 billion of the $25 billion program.

Bright Automotive

All in all, the DOE was actually pretty cautious and conservative with the ATVM loan funding. The program definitely had problems, to be sure, including some things I outlined in this previous post: miscommunication with companies, and better early due diligence. It’s also questionable whether the government should be giving such sizable amounts to single companies, instead of putting those funds into other incentives like tax breaks.

But the ATVM program wasn’t an example of massive misspending from the DOE; it was a program that was stalled before it was really even started.

  1. Wasn’t Fisker the company that was to locate its main assembly plant in Biden’s home town? No conflict of interest there, I’m sure.

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