Clean Machines : Deal With Hughes Gives Electric Cars a Jump Start


In a major deal in the fledgling electric vehicle industry, a small Southern California company will buy technology from a Hughes Aircraft unit to convert cars and trucks to electric power at an assembly facility in South Central Los Angeles.

Electricar, a unit of the nation's largest converter of electric vehicles, expects to begin production of electric-powered Chevy S-10 trucks and Geo Prisms in mid-July. The project will create at least 60 jobs at the Los Angeles facility during the first year of operation, Electricar officials said.

Electricar will buy 1,100 advanced motor and electronic control systems from Hughes Power Control Systems in Westchester. Hughes, which is owned by General Motors Corp., hopes to become a major player in supplying components to electric car manufacturers as part of its larger strategy to diversify outside the sagging defense business.

The deal is a milestone for Solar Electric Engineering Inc., Electricar's parent company in Sebastopol, Calif. The Hughes technology is a less-expensive, lower-power version of technology designed for the GM Impact. The widely praised Impact is the first mass-production electric car designed from scratch by a Big Three auto maker.

"These advanced AC (alternating-current) systems will provide the range, acceleration and reliability that major fleet users require from electric vehicles," said David W. Brandmeyer, Electricar's general manager.

Electricar's preliminary tests found that replacing its current technology--direct-current electric drive trains--with the Hughes system increased the range of a converted Prism from 60 to 100 miles at about 45 m.p.h. The new drives, the company said, will cut the same vehicle's acceleration time for 0 to 50 m.p.h. from 30 seconds to 13.

Solar Electric, which has produced 300 electric cars so far, was until recently a one-shop company that used two metered parking spaces on Santa Rosa's main drag as its showroom.

It has since brought in new top management, moved to larger headquarters in Sebastopol and opened the Los Angeles plant in April. The company is also hunting sites for similar conversion plants in Sacramento and Honolulu. It plans to place these in inner-city development zones as well.

"In every market, we look for the local enterprise zones, with their government support programs," Brandmeyer said.

The Electricar site is in an area awaiting final state approval to become part of the Watts Enterprise Zone. When that happens, Brandmeyer said, the company hopes to reap benefits such asinvestment tax credits and enhanced depreciation schedules, assistance with job training and reduced utility rates from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

Electricar is recruiting workers in the Watts area, including students of Los Angeles Trade Technical College and the Maxine Waters Employment Preparation Center.

Brandmeyer, one of the new executives, is a veteran auto marketer--a former national fleet sales manager for Toyota Motor Sales USA--and a member of President Clinton's Federal Fleet Conversion Task Force. Ted Morgan, the company's new chief executive, spent 14 years with Xerox Corp. before founding Office Club, a chain of office supply stores.

Solar Electric/Electricar will have exclusive rights to the Hughes technology among car-conversion companies in California until 1995. However, the deal does not preclude purchase by a major auto maker.

General Motors apparently still plans to use a Hughes drive train for its Impact. But in December, GM delayed mass production of the Impact and said it will make only 50 units in 1993. The deal with Electricar will give work to Hughes engineering and manufacturing teams assembled to build drive systems for the Impact.

"We want to keep the engineering facility alive, and here's a chance to do some business," said Dan Rivers, Hughes manager of light-duty electric vehicles.

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