SAN JOSE, Calif. A handful of entrepreneurs hope to turn Silicon Valley into Detroit 2.0 by supplying key subsystems for next-generation electric and hybrid vehicles. They share a vision of a significant new market on the horizon, but disagree about how it will emerge.
Atria Controls Inc. (Los Altos), Wrightspeed Inc. (Palo Alto) and Zap (Santa Rosa) hope to supply their battery packs and power trains to taxi, truck and bus makers around the world, bypassing traditional carmakers. Some details of their technologies are still under wraps, and two of the group as still seeking funding, but all hope to deliver their subsystems soon with some due this year.
"I am seeing a whole new world of potential customers emerging," said Joseph Notaro, director of automotive marketing at STMicroelectronics. "They will present a challenge for some car makers whose know-how is in combustion engines," he said.
"I think we're going to see segmentation of the market of EVs with spikes in some key areas and governments playing a role in some of them," said Steve Nelson, global director of marketing for automotive at Freescale Semiconductor.
Zap plans to start selling this year the battery subsystem it designed into its Alias car and into a five-door taxi targeting the China market. It can propel a vehicle 200 kilometers at speeds up to 85 km/hour using a lithium phosphate battery from an undisclosed battery maker.
"The trick with lithium is it's hard to make all the cells equal in voltage," said Gary Starr, who founded Zap in 1994 and now serves as its director of business development. "We've been working on a battery charging and thermal management system using proprietary circuitry so when it's charging all the cells are equal," he said.
Zap will also release a version of the battery subsystem for small trucks, generally aiming at low cost vehicles. Separately, it is taking part in an EV competition being conducted by the U.S. Post Office.
Atria and Wrightspeed are building power train subsystems for series hybrids, vehicles driven by electric motors with gas engines as back-up generators. Both are targeting larger trucks and buses.
"Our target market is heavy-duty vehicles and city buses that consume 80 percent of the fuel burned today," said Marv Bush, founder and chief executive of Atria, a former EDA executive at Cadence and Quickturn who spent time brainstorming with engineers at a Silicon Valley think tank for General Motors.
"Big city buses are where EVs are the home run," said Bush, noting China puts as many as 175,000 buses into service each year. "Unless you are in the $80,000-plus range, EVs are profit challenged, but in heavy-duty vehicles there is a lot of room for profit margin," he added.
Atria has a working prototype today and hopes to have a commercial power train available before the end of the year. The company is now closing a funding round for an undisclosed sum.
For its part, Wrightspeed is developing a prototype series hybrid power train for a range of customers including high performance cars and medium duty trucks. Like Atria, the company is based on the premise that consumer vehicles such as the coming Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf will be too expensive and limited to gain wide popularity.
"It's the [100 miles per charge] range limitation that kills you," said Ian Wright, a networking engineer who came to Silicon Valley in 1993, helped found Tesla Motors in 2003 then left to form his own venture. "Hybrids represent the convergence where volume applications will be, and they will be in delivery cars and taxis long before family cars," he said.