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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Solectria Sunrise

Air Date: Week of

Virginia Biggar visits the Boston based car company Solectria where a prototype electric vehicle, the "Sunrise" has been built. Their goal is to have 20,000 of the lightweight cars on the road by 1997.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Electric cars as a concept to reduce urban air and noise pollution have been around for a good while as pretty much just that: a concept. Less than 1,000 electrics have been made this decade, and all but a few are conversions of standard gasoline vehicles. They've been slow, short-ranged, and pricey curiosities. But a small Massachusetts company says it will be the first to mass produce an all new electric car that will go 50% further than the current electrics and sell for less than $20,000. The secret for their hope for success: lightweight composite materials instead of steel. Virginia Biggar of member station WBUR has our report.

(Hammering on the shop floor)

BIGGAR: Solectria's production plant in suburban Boston is not your typical auto plant. There are no sparks flying and no greasy hands. On one side of the oversized garage, production workers are converting cars, replacing standard gas engines with electric motors. Off to the side, protected by a thick plastic curtain, it looks more like a laboratory with scientists wearing white coats and goggles.

ROGERS: This is fiberglass.

BIGGAR: John Rogers is an electronics mechanic for Solectria.

ROGERS: It has the weight of burlap. It looks like burlap. It feels like silk to the touch. When you take this cloth and you cut it into small pieces, you can take the pieces and pile them on top of each other, fill the spaces with a resin. Once it hardens it retains that shape. It's very, very strong.

BIGGAR: Rogers is mixing chemicals to find just the right resin to make the body of the Sunrise, Solectria's newest electric car. Until now, Solectria, like most others in the business, has relied on conversions of cars made by other manufacturers.

WORDEN: The Sunrise, once it's developed and goes into production, will override and take the place of conversions. And in fact, conversions won't make any sense once that is out there.

BIGGER: James Worden is Solectria's CEO. He says by building the Sunrise from the ground up, Solectria can make the car as aerodynamic, energy efficient, and cost effective as possible.

WORDEN: The Sunrise and the ground up purposeful car lets you put everything exactly where you want it, really lets you zero in on all the details so that the combination of safety, comfort, maintenance or lack thereof, and efficiency are really pushed to the limit. But yet it's a real car that can go on the road.

BIGGAR: Worden says the first generation Sunrise will travel between 100 and 120 miles per charge. That's up from the 60 to 100 miles per charge the company's converted cars travel.

(Shop floor sounds)

BIGGAR: The Sunrise prototype now sits in a corner of Solectria's production plant awaiting a motor. The car is about the size of a Honda Accord, with the streamlined look of a sportscar.

BIGGAR: Can I sit in it?


MAN: I hope you can.

BIGGAR: The Sunrise seats 4. Inside it looks a little unusual. There's no gear shift, just a switch for forward, neutral, and reverse. But the production model will have conventional features like cruise control, a CD player, power steering, and power brakes. The company says it wants to appeal to average consumers. The Sunrise was developed with help from the Federal government and Boston Edison, a local electric utility. Jim Hogarth is Edison's Director of Electric Transportation Development.

HOGARTH: We worked with Solectria and told them what we thought the vehicle needed to be able to do, and how it should look from a fleet standpoint. And then also looked at the aesthetics of it so that it would also be attractive to the consumer market.

BIGGAR: Boston Edison is handling most of the marketing for the Sunrise. Jim Hogarth says they'll look overseas in countries like France and Sweden that have shown interest in electric vehicles. He says they're also counting on business here in the US, in states that will be requiring some zero-emission vehicle sales. Hogarth says the Sunrise will be the ideal company car.

HOGARTH: We think any fleet who currently operates a Ford Taurus vehicle, for example, as their fleet vehicle, would be very interested in this vehicle.

HOEY: Digital's considering the use of electric vehicles.

BIGGER: Michelle Hoey is with Digital Equipment Corporation of Massachusetts. Digital owns 4,000 vehicles, 400 of which run on alternative fuel, such as methanol.

HOEY: There are 2 considerations in moving to electric vehicles. One is currently there's not the infrastructure in place for recharging, and the second is the range that is offered with electric vehicles. Our salespeople need to have a range that exceeds 100 miles, and right now the recharging would only be 100 miles per charge.

BIGGAR: Solectria believes the Sunrise will be the car that finally exceeds that 100-mile standard. Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California in Davis, is impressed.

SPERLING: The concept seems to be the right concept for the future.

BIGGAR: He says while the Sunrise is a big advance, the project faces some uncertainties.

SPERLING: This is a car that's intended to be built by a consortium of companies. Now, most of these companies don't have a lot of experience building cars. The question is, can they build a vehicle, the Sunrise, that will cost $20,000 and provide the performance that they say it will?

BIGGAR: But Sperling says Solectria has a reputation for building top-notch electric drive systems. He adds the company is smart to make the Sunrise adaptable to improved battery technologies as they're developed. And Sperling says others will be watching.

SPERLING: Solectria's stepping up and saying that they will do it, that they will bear the risk of doing it, and so in a sense, the automobile industry is going to sit and watch. And if Solectria can pull this off, first they'll show that it can be done. And two, it'll put pressure on the big automakers to follow suit.

BIGGAR: Sperling says its failure, though, could chill the development of electric vehicles. Solectria and its business partners are now looking for sites to manufacture the Sunrise. Their goal is to have 20,000 orders and their assembly lines running by 1997. For Living on Earth, I'm Virginia Biggar.



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