Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Stirling Engines and the return of Think Vehicles

Who says a hybrid vehicle has to burn gasoline? It's probably the oil companies pushing that idea. A hybrid vehicle is one driven with multiple power sources, such as electricity and gasoline. But that's only one model for hybrid vehicles, and today I have another model to discuss.

Segway Inventor Focusing on Green Cars

Have you driven a Fjord lately?

In the 1990's a Norwegian company, Pivco, designed and built a small electric vehicle, the Think Citi. It was attuned to being used in a city and its limited range and speed made it unsuited to America where we've installed superhighways with speeds above 70 miles/hr. But at the same time California had enacted a requirement that some percentage of all vehicles sold in the state must be zero emissions, which sent the car companies scrambling to find an electrically driven alternative. Ford's solution was to buy Pivco and import the Citi's, and within a couple years they drove it into bankruptcy. Fortunately some investors in Norway saw an opportunity and bought the remains from Ford, resurrecting it into a new company.

The reborn company is now ready to unveil their new car, and is it a doozy.

The design is simple enough they make parts from around the world, and can have simple assembly plants that are built near to where the vehicles will be sold. Rather than build a large centralized factory from which vehicles are shipped worldwide, it appears they plan to have a distributed production stream.

The base vehicle should cost $15,000 (or so) but that's without the battery pack. Part of their plan is to radically change how vehicles are made and sold. The battery pack they are using, derived from the Lithium-ION pack designed by Tesla Motors, will be very expensive. The cost for the battery pack would make this simple little car out of reach for all but the most well heeled of buyers, and the well heeled buyers wouldn't be interested in a simple vehicle like this. To enable a mass market for the Think vehicles, they are leasing the battery pack and bundling into the lease maintenance and replacement services.

The hybrid portion of the car is a Stirling Engine designed by Dean Kamen. Dean Kamen is a super rich inventor who made a splash with the Segway, and has his sights set on redesigning how vehicles are powered. Stirling engines take heat and create rotary motion, and is a design dating back to the 1800's. Stirling engines, however, have never been harnessed in a commercially viable way to produce useful work. But according to these articles Dean Kamen has worked out a way to harness a simple Stirling engine that can take any fuel and produce electricity. The vision is for a Stirling engine to be mounted in these Think vehicles, and used to charge the onboard battery pack.

The CNNMoney article discusses how they intend to market the car through carsharing programs. First, the car would fit well with a carsharing program because of its leased nature. If you encounter their car through a carsharing program, and like the car, you can then order your own if you wish. Hmm, interesting possibility except I don't think there's many people using carsharing programs. This may be a questionable part of their plan, one I think most Americans will have difficulty overcoming.

In any case the overall vision is that the car company will be offering a range of services related to the vehicle, and charging a monthly fee. This includes car insurance, maintenance, wireless internet access, and more. The CEO of Sun Microsystems, Jonathan Schwartz, has described a meeting he once had with car company executives. The exchange started with the question, what's the monthly lease or car loan payment for the typical car. Then he asked how much in monthly fees would be required for a car company to give the car away for free. His point was that if a gadget maker could offer enough services bundled with the gadget, the gadget could be given away for free, and the customer is obligated to continue paying for the services.

The Think is coming close to this model. They're offering to sell the base vehicle inexpensively, and bundle with that vehicle a range of services.

A thought in my mind is, who owns the vehicle itself. There have been instances of computer companies selling a cheap or zero-cost computer, expecting to make a mint by in monthly service fees. But instead the geek crowd bought the cheap computer, didn't buy the service package, and installed Linux on the cheap computer, driving the computer maker out of business because they lost their shirt giving away hardware.

If the customer owns the Think vehicle who says they have to buy battery service from Think?

In any case this all looks to be very exciting.