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Ian Clifford, founder and CEO of ZENN Motor Co. Credit: Michael Vaughan for The Globe and Mail
Ian Clifford, founder and CEO of ZENN Motor Co. Credit: Michael Vaughan for The Globe and Mail

Driving It Home

Zenn pulls plug on EV plan Add to ...

So Ian Clifford has pulled the plug on what had been ZENN Motor's long-standing electric car strategy.

Last week Clifford announced that ZENN is getting out of the electric car-making business and will instead focus on trying to achieve a battery breakthrough that will give the business a jolt.

ZENN has been pushing low-speed electrics for years and had emerged as one of the darlings of the "truly committed" - those who believe electric cars are the future. Clifford, the founder and chief executive, has nicely played the role of plucky upstart struggling along in the face of tin-eared politicians and a doubting public. Heck, even Rick Mercer had fun mocking the thick-headed politicians who simply could not see the ZENN genius.

Now ZENN no longer plans to distribute or sell its own highway-capable electric vehicle. The market is getting too competitive. Clifford's little runabout, priced around $16,000 and with a top speed of only 40 km/h, simply is not going to take on the big guns in the auto industry and succeed.

"The way things have really changed over the last year - there have been such dramatic shifts and focus on electric vehicles - it doesn't make a lot of business sense for us to go into the distribution and sale of the vehicle," he told Reuters.

So ZENN and Clifford are moving on to something else. The plan now is to supply auto equipment makers with an electric car drive train for generating and delivering power.

Toronto-based ZENN believes that its investment in EEStor is the key. EEStor is a low-profile, privately held U.S. battery maker. The dream is to deliver technology that will make electric cars faster, more powerful and able to travel longer between charges.

ZENN has invested $7.5-million in EEStor and has a 10.7 per cent stake in the company. The challenge now is for EEStor to deliver a production-ready energy storage unit - a battery or super capacitor -- that can power a car up to 400 km at speeds of up to 125 km/h on a five-minute charge.

If EEStor can pull this off it would be a massive, unprecedented achievement. No one in the world has managed to come even close to this kind of performance.

Just a few days ago at the Frankfurt auto show, Daimler AG research and development chief Thomas Weber put electric vehicles (EV) - and ZENN's -- challenge into perspective. Sure, EVs are the future, but pure EVs with sensible ranges and genuinely quick "refuelling" technology are two decades away, suggested Weber.

Keep in mind here that Daimler's Mercedes unit will soon have an electric version of the Mercedes SLS, with a range of around 240 km. Weber and Daimler are not opposed to EVs. But Weber also said the cost of an electric SRS would be in the region of €200,000.

So cost is an issue.

In the meantime, electric cars for city driving are coming soon and they'll use current technology to get a range of 200 km or so using a single charge. The big challenge is to get twice or three times that in a car that sells for $20,000 or so - and requires no compromises of its owner

That is still some 20 years away, Weber believes. He's not alone.

If ZENN and EEStor manage to create a battery that pulls EVs ahead by 15 or 16 or 20 years, then they'll really have something. If not Rick Mercer and The Mercer Report might make a return visit, but not necessarily to poke fun at the politicians.

Follow on Twitter: @catocarguy


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