(May 13, 2009) As the world moves rapidly toward the electrification of personal transportation vehicles, a new name will soon be joining the fray. California based Miles EV has been importing and selling Chinese made low speed electric vehicles since 2005. Over that time the company founded by Miles Rubin has been making plans to introduce a full speed electric sedan that will meet the needs of most drivers.
Miles EV's marketing director Kara Saltness recently spoke with Green Fuels Forecast about the new electric sedan. The new car was first discussed publicly in 2007 and has had various names in that time including Javlon and XS500. Saltness tells GFF that when the sedan is announced in the next few weeks, it will not carry the Miles branding. Instead the company will launch a new brand and web-site to promote the new car and its follow-on products. The Miles brand will remain for the LSEVs as a niche commercial product.
Miles is intent on making the new car affordable to the mass market. However, since batteries remain the single most expensive aspect of electrically driven vehicles, the company had to find ways to reduce costs. One major element of that will be manufacturing the car and battery system in China. As startups like Tesla Motors and Fisker Automotive have learned, the auto industry is remarkably capital intensive and requires a great deal of engineering expertise in many different disciplines.
Saltness explains that Miles has attacked these problems by hiring a core team of engineering and project management experts. In addition the company has formed partnerships with a number of engineering and manufacturing suppliers to handle the bulk of the actual work. The California engineering team is overseeing all of the various partnerships. In particular, the team is focusing on the Chinese manufacturing partners to ensure the quality of the car and its various systems.
American consumers are likely to be very concerned about the quality of Chinese made cars after seeing some of the crash test videos of such cars that have been imported to Europe. Miles will also have several of its own engineers working on site in China "to make sure suppliers are adhering to quality standards." Saltness tells GFF that Hafei will be doing the assembly of the new sedans. The company has capacity for manufacturing 400,000 vehicles a year of which approximately 20,000 annually to start will be for Miles.
The Miles EV is based on an existing Hafei chassis that has been completely re-engineered in order to meet US market requirements and regulations. The chassis engineering work has been done primarily by Miles' US and European engineering partners to ensure that it complies with all appropriate safety standards. Since the new car is a four wheeled passenger car it will have to pass the same rules as other vehicles sold in the US, unlike the three wheeled electric vehicles being developed by some other companies.
The lithium ion battery packs for the EV will be provide Tianjin Lishen Battery. Lishen currently supplies lithium ion batteries to a wide range of consumer electronics companies including Apple, Samsung and Motorola. According to Saltness "what is key to us partnering with them is that we have a long-term sourcing agreement." Under the initial agreement Lishen will provide enough cells for Miles to produce up 20,000 battery electric vehicles annually for sale in the US.
The cells to be provided by Lishen will use a lithium iron phosphate chemistry similar to that developed by other cell suppliers like BYD and A123 Systems. The iron phosphate chemistry generally has a lower energy density than the cobalt oxide cells used in many consumer electronics batteries along with the Tesla Roadster.
For automotive applications, iron phosphate is generally considered preferable to metal oxide because of its thermal stability and resistance to overheating. The downside is that it has lower energy capacity. However, since cars have to live in a much wider operating environment and have longer durability expectations, the trade-off of is considered acceptable by most automakers including Miles.
Like most other automakers working on plug-in vehicles, the cells Miles will get from Lishen are a large-format prismatic type. This helps to make pack assembly and integration easier and reduces the number of interconnects. While Lishen is providing the cells, the battery management system is being developed by Miles own in-house engineering staff in collaboration with a US based supplier that has yet to be publicly identified.
Miles is working with another European based "engineering design and integration firm" on the pack integration. Saltness emphasized that "our Chinese partners are not doing any of the engineering. We're working with very top tier, high end brand companies." This will be an important element in order to gain US customer confidence in the design of its new EV.
One area that Miles is not pursuing at this time is battery swapping programs. Better Place has been promoting the idea of automated battery change stations to supplement public charging points. However, the technical issues with this are numerous and until packs and chemistries become standardized its not likely to be a viable proposition. Instead Miles is focusing on public charging and making sure the car can support fast charging when it becomes available.
Miles plans to launch its new electric sedan in the US market in mid-2010. Saltness provides a range estimate of 90-120 miles per charge. While most makers of EVs have been promoting range numbers based on optimal conditions on the EPA drive cycles, Saltness acknowledges that range is dependent on driving conditions and style. For example driving a constant 65 mph might yield a range of 100 miles based on the company's "realistic expectation" based on its own real world testing.
At the time that Saltness spoke with GFF in early May 2009, Miles had 20 fully functional engineering prototypes that were being tested. The cars were undergoing safety and durability testing in the United States and Europe in conjunction with the engineering partners. Two of the federal motor vehicle safety standard crash tests have already been completed. Miles is engineering the vehicle with the intent of achieving a 5-star rating on the New Car Assessment Program.
At launch the new car will be priced at approximately $45,000. However, that price doesn't include any government incentives for purchasing plug-in vehicles. The car will be eligible for the full $7,500 federal tax credit that was passed by congress in 2007. If the state of California is able to fund an Air Resources Board credit program that ran out in March of this year, buyers in that state may be eligible for an additional $5,000 rebate.
Prior to the start of sales, Miles plans to put about 200-300 of the new vehicles in drivers hands for a market test. The exact mix of the test is yet be determined and could be all commercial fleet or a mix of fleet and retail drivers.
Miles is planning to bypass the traditional franchised dealer model for sales and service. Instead the company will establish a network of company owned showrooms throughout California. The final number of outlets hasn't yet been determined, but the company plans to have facilities in each major city. The intent according to Saltness is to have a "much higher touch sales model where we are able to work with our customers and really assuage any concerns that they might have, whether it's a charging concern or a range anxiety concern."
As for servicing the vehicles, the retail outlets will be able to handle service of the new cars. In addition, Miles is working to establish a partnership with a third-party service provider that would expand the reach closer to customers. No aggreements have been signed yet but Miles hopes to have something in place by launch time.
Of note is that Miles plans to focus on the California market for its launch phase. Recognizing the difficulty of launching a brand, retail and service network and a new car, Miles wants to keep things closer to its home base. This will allow the company to take care of its customers with a very high level of service according to Saltness. The California market is also more prone to adopt EVs and the climate there is more amenable to electric vehicle use.
Saltness also points out that California utilities are very interested in building out a public EV charging infrastructure. The infrastructure will be crucial to mitigating range anxiety issues if drivers are able to plug in cars and top up the batteries wherever they stop.
Miles has big plans for its new electric sedan. However, it appears that the company is aware of the potential pitfalls and is working with partners capable of engineering a modern vehicle that can meet customer expectations.