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Bright's Idea

Re-designing the light-duty service vehicle
By Narayan Brach

When Bright Automotive spun off (our fifth for-profit to leave the nest) from Rocky Mountain Institute in January of 2008, company founders hoped to create an automotive solution to address the interwoven challenges of "economy, air pollution, and diminishing oil supplies." By May of 2009, Bright had already made strides towards its ambitious goal, unveiling the IDEA concept car: an innovative and affordable plug-in hybrid electric light-duty vehicle that packs in over 100 miles per gallon.

By starting with a completely fresh palette, Bright was able to create a wholly different kind of service vehicle. "Because we were starting with a clean sheet of paper, we were free to redefine what the car itself does, and what it looks like," explains Michael Brylawski, VP of Corporate Strategy for Bright and an RMI alum. "By going into first principles, we looked at making a more productive vehicle."

(Former RMI Team Leader John Waters, CEO and President of Bright Automotive, introduces the media to the IDEA.)

Bright's IDEA carefully integrates its customers needs into a versatile and cost-cutting package."The first thing we did was engage the customer," says Brylawski. "We went to key fleets like PG&E, Cox Cable, and Duke Energy, and led customer-driven design workshops to understand the pain-points of drivers and fleet managers with today's vehicles."

As a result of this hands-on engagement with customers, the IDEA comes equipped with some interesting features beyond fuel efficiency, like a passenger seat that can be converted into a mobile office, and an interactive touch screen that provides drivers with efficiency and battery charge feedback, GPS, inventory tracking, and more.

Light-duty vehicles are a great place to start in tackling automotive inefficiency, as the vast majority of the trucks on the road are heavy, steel models, essentially unchanged since the 1970s. "Fleet managers, one of the biggest buyers of light-duty service vehicles, fundamentally understand that it is cheaper to save fuel than to buy fuel," says Brylawski. "Unlike many other customers, fleet managers buy vehicles on a total cost of ownership basis, and they take everything into account."

The demand is out there for vehicles like the IDEA, and Bright aims to begin mass production in 2012, striving to put as many as 50,000 cars on the road each year. However, with the current economic climate, the biggest challenge that Bright faces is acquiring the capital necessary to put the IDEA into production.

Bright is waiting to see if the company will receive an award from the federal government under section 136 of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, a program that provides both grants and loans that support the development of advanced technology vehicles. "So far they've announced the first three award recipients," explains Brylawski. "Tesla, another start-up was among them, so that's encouraging."

If Bright is able to gather the capital needed to bring the IDEA to the road, their car has the potential to entirely change consumers' expectations of what a service vehicle can be. But getting off the ground isn't always easy. "Bright needs to execute and focus on its core market, which is no small achievement. In fact, there have been no successful [auto] startups in the U.S. in the last 90 years," says Brylawski.

Brylawski has been involved with the IDEA since its inception, first working on RMI's Hypercar—a concept vehicle that eventually spawned an RMI spinoff company, now called Fiberforge, in 1994. The IDEA is an evolution of RMI's Hypercar, and for Brylawski, seeing the vehicle realized is fulfilling. "It's exciting to see the fresh ideas and innovation from RMI applied by Bright, to bring the concept to reality—from ideas to implementation."

--Published July 2009