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The Future Just Got Brighter

(Originally published in GreenBiz August 16, 2010)

By Kelly Vaughn

Last week, General Motors and Bright Automotive announced a new strategic relationship just two months after GM launched its venture capital branch to fund advanced transportation projects.

Bright Automotive, spun off from Rocky Mountain Institute in 2008, now has bragging rights as the first investment of GM Ventures, LLC. The $5 million investment by the auto giant couldn’t have come at a better time, providing a solid shot in the arm to drive the company’s 100-mpg plug-in hybrid electric fleet vehicle, the IDEA, into mass production.

“It's fair to say that almost every global car company is getting serious about efficiency and electrification,” said Michael Brylawski, vice president of corporate strategy at Bright Automotive. “In particular, getting funded from GM's Venture unit puts the deal in the right context. GM can invest in us as a ‘high risk/high return’ entity, and it lets us commercialize our innovative business model and vehicle concept.”

Designed as a utility van for businesses, the IDEA was originally slated for mass production by 2012, with Bright hoping to put as many as 50,000 cars on the road each year. However, the economic downturn brought challenges and uncertainty that the company could acquire the capital necessary to get the IDEA to market.

Where It All Started

Bright’s origins at Rocky Mountain Institute reveal how a new approach can breathe life into a stagnant industry. By starting with a completely fresh palette, Bright was able to create a wholly different kind of service vehicle.

Bright adopted the approach that enormous fuel savings (and therefore cost savings) could be achieved by focusing energy on the biggest gas guzzlers—and that platform fitness and innovative design would drive down the cost of electrical components. In addition, a focus on educating consumers on the total cost of ownership of an efficient vehicle vs. a traditional vehicle gave Bright a unique segment of the market.

Bryalwski, a former vice president with RMI’s transportation practice, said making a lightweight, aerodynamic commercial truck focused on government and business customers was the right move. “If we can execute with proven technologies, we're going to offer our customers a breakthrough product that will save them money while saving a lot of carbon and oil. It's the ultimate RMI strategy.”

According to RMI Chief Scientist Amory Lovins in “Hypercars: The Next Industrial Revolution,” efficiency, environment, fuel security and affordability goals are widely assumed to be in conflict in vehicle design. But, if designers start from scratch, using a whole-systems approach to maximize platform efficiency, they could instead meet these key goals simultaneously and without compromise.

The IDEA is just that: a wholly different service car that integrates its customers’ needs into the fuel-saving design. Key fleets like PG&E, Cox Cable and Duke Energy were brought in to collaborate during customer-driven design workshops.

As a result of this hands-on engagement, the IDEA comes equipped with some interesting features beyond fuel efficiency, such as 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.

What’s Next For Bright?

Ready to shift out of survival mode, Bright is preparing to scale to an order of magnitude over the next year. And if the company can gather the capital needed to get the IDEA on the road, it has the potential to entirely change expectations of what a service vehicle can be.

The cash infusion from GM Ventures will help catalyze Bright’s next big funding push, targeting private equity and a “green factory” loan program administered by the Department of Energy. “The initial response about our partnership from GM from the press, potential investors and the DOE is extremely positive,” said Brylawski.

EV World reports Bright’s president Reuben Munger hopes to capture 5 percent of the Class 1 and Class 2 commercial vehicle market in North America and is sizing their factory plans to produce 50,000 vehicles a year. While the company is still evaluating possible plant locations, Munger believes Bright will eventually hire up to 1,000 plant workers and provide employment for 5,000 people at its various parts suppliers. Production could begin as early as 2013.

From Ideas to Implementation

Like a proud parent, RMI is celebrating the news about Bright and its promise of future growth. For Brylawski, Bright’s achievements are much more personal.

“To see an RMI spin-off raise significant capital and bring about Amory’s vision in a big way is very rewarding,” said Brylawski. “Bright is an embodiment of where RMI has gone the last few years: to go big because we can't afford to let our thought leadership stay contained in the Rockies.”

Kelly Vaughn is a public relations specialist at Rocky Mountain Institute.

 
 
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