Short drive ahead: EV execs ready for sector growth

OpConnect's Dexter Turner told OEN PubTalk attendees that big-time improvements are on the way in the EV charging world.

OpConnect's Dexter Turner told OEN PubTalk attendees that big-time improvements are on the way in the EV charging world.

Electric vehicle batteries are getting cheaper and performing better, charging infrastructure is becoming more dynamic and the vehicles themselves —with Brammo’s electric motorcycles hitting more than 100 miles an hour and Arcimoto’s EV a few proverbial inches from actor Nathan Fillion’s driveway — are better than ever.

There were plenty of reasons to be optimistic about EV futures at an April 10 PubTalk forum hosted by Drive Oregon and the Oregon Entrepreneurs Network. Representatives from the three Oregon companies that took the stage at Portland’s Backspace gave a crowd of about 120 more than an hour to pick the brains of Arcimoto President Mark Frohnmayer, OpConnect president Dexter Turner and Brammo’s Greg Lemhouse, director of fleet development.

In a conversation moderated by Scott Sandler, fund manager of the Oregon Angel Fund and a Drive Oregon board member, the trio offered a promising outlook on their present-day business dealings.

Arcimoto plans to put 15 of its sixth-generation vehicles on the road by the end of 2013, with public relations support from inaugural driver Fillion. The actor has already blurbed the endeavor in People Magazine.

Fillion’s attachment to the vehicle should bode well for Arcimoto. Though the company’s vehicle — technically a motorcycle — isn’t quite Serenity, the spaceship helmed by Fillion’s character Capt. Malcolm Reynolds in the Joss Whedon series Firefly, it’s three-wheeled style and canvas zip flaps may find appeal among the Browncoats (translation: Firefly fans). The Mad-Max styled rollbars and front-to-back seating do trigger some fond memories of Serenity’s rugged interior.

Brammo is meanwhile talking to governments worldwide about using that company’s motorcycles in fleets, aiming for police and military riders to create visibility for its product.

Brammo’s focus on, well, “badass” motorcycles has meanwhile helped the bike hold its own alongside BMW and Ducati at premiere motorcycle events, Lemhouse said.

“They’re not checking out the batteries, they’re checking out the bike and what it does,” he explained.

What does it do? Brammo’s Empulse, released last year, hits speeds above 100 miles an hour and has a 120-mile range.

“It’s the only electric motorcycle in the world with a six-speed transmission,” said Lemhouse. Asked why add a transmission to a battery-op EV, he essentially answered, why not?

At OpConnect, the company is positioning its chargers to do more than just juice up EVs. Recognizing that electric vehicles are still in short supply, and that charging stations may not recoup initial investments for their installing owners quickly, OpConnect has built other bells and whistles into its chargers. In so doing, it has expanded station function and also captured other revenue streams.

The 15-inch touchscreen LCD is basically a wireless Internet kiosk. It can run apps for things like paperless parking payments, 911 alerts, or concierge services that help people find their way from their car to their destination on foot. OpConnect stations can also handle multiple EVs at a time.

And they do something EV drivers are already drooling for: They kill the “fob key,” with payment possible via email on the touchscreen or by mobile phone.

“We’ve identified that as a problem,” said Turner. “We think every driver is going to have either a finger or a phone.”

All three speakers were optimistic about other things EV, with questions about battery technology chief among th queries fielded.

Both Lemhouse and Frohnmayer said battery technology will ultimately improve, boosting performance and lowering costs. Lemhouse says half the price of Brammo’s motorcycles are now in its patented battery.

Both execs, however, said technology is moving fast enough to pitch costs downward within a few years. Brammo’s bikes currently retail from $8,000 to $18,900. Arcimoto will retail it’s first vehicles at $17,500.

“Ultimately we want to drive the cost down as close as we can to $10,000,” said Frohnmayer.

Looking ahead to a smarter grid, Turner says OpConnect is preparing to let EV drivers make money off its chargers as well as pay them. In an era where utilities will pay for peak hour electricity from EVs, likely at a better rate than the one paid for an overnight charge (yes, that means a profit for drivers), OpConnect is poised to let drivers take advantage.

The company’s secret sauce is the secure connection that makes more complex financial transactions safer down the line. For the IT lovers who can’t resist wondering, the platform is a customized Linux with a custom layer on top.

Other bright spots ahead include continued engagement in policy and planning toward charging infrastructure, particularly in Oregon. And, a continued push by consumers for EV services.

The challenges? Finding money to speed transition to a smarter grid at utilities. And the high bar now set for EV companies.

“We have to constantly be pushing to make a product that people want to buy,” said Lemhouse.

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