The widely held image of electric cars puttering along in the slow lane might be in for a revision.
AC Propulsion of San Dimas has developed an electric sports car with a muscular 220-horsepower motor that accelerates from zero to 60 miles in 4.9 seconds, and can cruise at that 60-mph speed for 90 miles on a single charge.
Granted, its whisper-like whir doesn’t rival the beefy roar of a muscle car, but AC Propulsion’s so-called “Tzero” is far from wimpy.
And now company founder Alan Cocconi is looking for the Tzero to transport AC Propulsion into the business fast lane.
During the five years since its founding, AC Propulsion has been developing special-order electric cars and components in smaller batches. Its customers have been automakers, utilities and others interested in testing designs for use in their own electric car projects.
But Cocconi is now looking to shift gears by teaming with an as-yet-unidentified partner to bring AC Propulsion’s high-end electric sports car to a mass consumer market.
Specifically, Cocconi wants the partner to produce and market 80 to 100 Tzero vehicles, which would sell for about $80,000 each.
“The R & D; market doesn’t grow quickly, so for successful growth we need to sell real products for real people,” said 39-year-old Cocconi, a Cal Tech graduate who co-founded AC Propulsion with partner Wally Rippel in 1992. Rippel later left the firm, after the two partners spent their first two years developing products without any pay.
Cocconi is one of four partners-owners who have financed the company with their own savings frequently going without pay to help keep the firm solvent (although revenues typically cover most other costs).
Before this, Cocconi’s most visible role was at AeroVironment of Monrovia, where he had been part of a team that developed a car that went on to become General Motors Corp.’s EV-1, the first commercial electric car to be introduced by a major automaker.
At AC Propulsion there is no single dominant customer or product. The closest thing to a signature product is an electric car drive train that sells for $40,000 per unit.
Some 50 drive trains have been sold to date, with buyers ranging from Honda Motor Co. Ltd. to a South African electric utility the company’s biggest customer.
The company has also produced some complete electric cars by removing the gasoline engines from Honda Civics and replacing them with electric innards. The $80,000 price tag, though, has limited sales of the converted Civics to just 10 all from companies interested in conducting tests on the cars and their parts for possible integration into their own future vehicles.
To date, AC Propulsion has garnered only one such licensing agreement a $200,000 deal with Magnetek. Another major piece of business was a $300,000 contract from the South Coast Air Quality Management District to design and build a trailer containing a gas-powered generator that connects to electric-powered vehicles to extend their mileage range.
The revenue streams have totaled about $500,000 for each of the last three years enough to pay all the bills and salaries for two or three non-owner employees, but not much else, said Cocconi.
“I’ve stopped taking paychecks for about a year, and there were six months last year (when the other partners went) without pay. We’re all together. That’s why we’re partners,” he said.
To stabilize its income stream, AC Propulsion wants to produce Tzero electric cars with an outside partner. Ideally, the partner would offer production and marketing expertise, while AC Propulsion would provide technology and technological assistance.
Cocconi said several potential partners have expressed an interest in co-producing the vehicles, though all talks are still preliminary. Realistically, it will be at least two years before any substantial number of Tzeros roll off production lines, he added.
“We like being a small R & D; shop. Our goal is to get some big partnerships with somebody else, and we would stay on the engineering side. We’re more into engineering and prototype work,” he said.
In fact, a lack of marketing savvy and with it, minimal attention to mass market appeal is probably one of AC Propulsion’s biggest weaknesses.
But Cocconi notes that the company will only be able to succeed by finding small market niches and exploiting them, rather than by going head-to-head with major car makers.
And for AC Propulsion, that niche is high-performance, high-priced electric cars and components.
Several industry sources praised Cocconi and his partners for their innovative work, which has yielded electric vehicles with performance levels once considered impossible.
“(AC Propulsion is) excellent, though their products tend to be pricey because of their small quantities,” said Michael Wehrey, program manager of electric vehicle technology at Southern California Edison Corp. “But the basic engineering is very good.”