Company aims to build viable electric car in Md.

Car on display at University of Maryland, which provided funding

  • Alex Ratushny, a student and co-op at the wind tunnel, runs the smoke visualization test on the G2.
Alex Ratushny, a student and co-op at the wind tunnel, runs the… (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
January 26, 2012|By Candus Thomson, The Baltimore Sun

COLLEGE PARK — — Genovation Cars Inc., a Rockville-based company, wants to do what many in the auto industry have failed to do — build a fully electric, battery-powered vehicle that the public embraces.

On Thursday, company executives were at the Glenn L. Martin Wind Tunnel on the University of Maryland, College Park campus to show off the aerodynamic properties of the G2, as the car is called, and talk up their project. Genovation has won a $135,000 product development grant from the Maryland Industrial Partnerships, a university program.

Genovation CEO Andrew Saul has turned to a small Maryland defense contractor to help fine-tune the shape for efficiency. And, he says, a factory capable of turning out 3,000 handcrafted cars annually could be built in Maryland, perhaps Baltimore. He hopes to begin building the vehicles in two years and sell them for $60,000 each.

"Here in the Maryland area, we have a very affluent and aware population that knows we have to get off gasoline and get busy cleaning the air. This is a great place for us to be," Saul said.

Despite $5 billion in federal grants and loans over the last several years, the electric car market remains lukewarm. Neither Nissan nor General Motors is coming close to meeting sales projections.

Energy expert Robert Bryce, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, summed up the rocky history of the vehicles at a 2010 forum on sustainable transportation: "Electric cars are the next big thing. And they always will be."

But that hasn't stopped the nation's leaders from including electric cars—and other alternate-fuel vehicles — in their vision of the future. Last year, President Barack Obama set a goal of 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015.

And it hasn't stopped Saul, the son of Washington real estate magnate and the founder of Chevy Chase Bank, B.F. Saul II.

"There's really nothing like it on the market," said Saul, as he watched a silver mock-up the size of a Radio Flyer wagon take the brunt of a 30-mph head wind. "It's a sporty car that will go 100 miles on a charge and hold four adults."

The G2 is being designed to do zero to 60 mph in under seven seconds and will have a rally-style suspension for performance handling. The car would be made from environmentally friendly materials, such as soybean resins for the body and natural rubber for the tires. A hybrid model also is on the drawing board.

"We think we'll turn some heads," Saul said.

But first, he must get the attention of investors to raise $125 million to get the G2 from model-size to factory-size and into production. Company President Steve Rogers said Genovation is in talks with investors for enough money to build "mules," or stripped-down chassis that can be tested.

However, given their price and record of performance, electric cars are a hard sell, Rogers acknowledged. A Nissan Leaf goes for about $33,000 and a Chevy Volt is about $10,000 more.

"We're a little late to the game of raising money. Companies that were doing it in 2008, many of them have gone out of business and taken investor money with them," he said. "The well has been poisoned a little."

At last year's Society of Automotive Engineers World Congress in Detroit, Motor Trend magazine met with Saul, reviewed his plans and concluded: "That sounds like a tall order to us."

Phyllis Cuttino, director of the Pew Clean Energy Program, said electric cars are facing the same skepticism as Ford Model T's, but that those hurdles can be overcome.

"As with any new technology, the more the public is familiar with it, the more prices come down, the more technology develops, the more confidence grows," she said. "Manufacturers are betting on them, and frankly the country needs them."

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