COLUMNS: Chrysler's Trio of Electric Vehicles - Vile Gossip

December 3, 2008
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0812 01 Z+chrysler Electric Vehicles+town And Country Jeep Wrangler Dodge Lotus Europa
In the total absence of a regular information stream from the once fairly blabby (back when it was a public corporation) Chrysler, we are left to marvel aloud at the latest round of surprise moves from the now-secretive, privately held carmaker. At a hastily assembled news conference, CEO Bob Nardelli gleefully unleashed on the crowd three electric vehicles from the equivalent of nowhere. It might as well have been rabbits from a silk top hat, the jaded press corps was so stunned.
From stage left came a newly electrified Town & Country minivan and a four-door Jeep Wrangler, each using an electric motor and a lithium-ion battery system as well as a small gasoline engine with an integrated electric generator to extend range from 40 miles in all-electric mode to 400 miles using about eight gallons of gas.
Dodge had its own front-and-center moment: an all-electric, badge-engineered Lotus Europa with a range of 150 to 200 miles based on an eight-hour charge from a 110/120-volt household outlet.
"Chrysler Leaps Into Electric Race" headlined one Detroit newspaper, and "Chrysler Gets Charged Up" was the bold page-one banner on the other. How? and from where? and with whose batteries? were our immediate questions. The answers were not forthcoming, other than that Chrysler was working with Nardelli's old company, General Electric. So mistrustful was our own intrepid reporter, executive editor Joseph DeMatio, that, when Nardelli promised an electric vehicle from Chrysler by 2010, he asked, "Do you mean just one vehicle?"
Because that could be exactly what might happen - Chrysler might simply squeeze out one example so it can meet or beat General Motors to market with an extended-range electric vehicle. Actually, the likelihood that a battery company could produce a steady supply of batteries to reliably power a full run of desirable vehicles is so remote that even GM - which has been trumpeting the Chevy Volt's every baby step on the way to production - will have its own problem meeting its self-imposed late-2010 deadline.
The media just hate that Chrysler no longer seeks out our company. Consequently, we have become more suspicious of spin than usual, if that's possible. It doesn't help that Chrysler's news flash came in the middle of the congressional debate over the controversial $25 billion government loan program for Detroit carmakers. Call Chrysler's gambit a little bit of industry/government relations. It didn't help that the very next day brought word that Chrysler master Cerberus is making a play to buy the 19.9 percent of Chrysler that Daimler still owns.
0812 01 Z+chrysler Electric Vehicles+town And Country Jeep Wrangler Dodge Lotus Europa
Our busy minds, abhorring a vacuum, begin to spin. Here are some of our more plausible scenarios:
  • Owning Chrysler lock, stock, and smoking mirrors would allow Cerberus to sell any or all of the company without Daimler getting in the way. The sword of Damocles is about to drop.
  • Nissan could get involved in a relationship, but CEO Carlos Ghosn is probably too smart for that.
  • Or maybe the Chinese. Yes. Warren Buffet just bought ten percent of the Chinese car company BYD, the world's largest producer of lithium-ion batteries for cell phones. Its young chairman and all of his top guys are electrical engineers.
  • Or perhaps, even as you read this, old Asian-auto-industry hand Phil Murtaugh is brokering a controlling or equity interest in Chrysler to Chinese automotive giant SAIC.
You see what happens to our active imaginations when we have too much of too little information.
But there is information; we just had to dig for it. Analyst Jim Hall of 2953 Analytics, always the voice of reason and blessed with a Cray computer of a memory bank, reminded us that Larry Oswald, the engineer behind GM's 1991 HX3 hybrid concept car and veteran of the EV1 program, left for Chrysler in the mid-1990s after twenty-six years with GM. At Chrysler, he and his team did a lot of behind-the-scenes, off-site electric-vehicle research. For the past nine years, he was CEO of DaimlerChrysler's Global Electric Motorcars, until his recent retirement.
That's a lot more electric-vehicle expertise and experience backing the release of these three vehicles than Chrysler made it sound when it said that its in-house organization ENVI (as in ENVIronmental) "was created just over one year ago with the strategic intent to develop electric-drive vehicles quickly." You can see how misunderstandings happen. The "overnight" surprise had some real sweat equity. That and a potential breakthrough from a battery supplier could put Chrysler on track to beat the Volt out of the gate.
Of course, they'll both have to prove it to us come 2010.

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