The Think, a squat
, battery-powered city car
, celebrated its official production launch in Aurskog, Norway, late last month. After presiding over a modest ribbon-cutting ceremony, Jan-Olaf Willums, Think Global's chief executive, took a visitor on a careering
spin through the factory's icy car park.
Asked whether the car - barely three metres long - was safe, Mr Willums cited the $150m spent on it by Ford Motor, the brand's former owner, including on developing a crash-resistant steel frame that will help the car meet European and US safety standards. But were the electric cars, with their plastic panels, durable
? Mr Willums smiles before delivering a swift karate-style kick to the side of the car, leaving no mark.
Norway, with high wages and fewer than 3m vehicles on the road, does not seem a logical place to build cars. However, automaking executives from as far afield
as China and Brazil have made the trek north to Aurskog to call on Mr Willums and his colleagues. And the 61-year-old entrepreneur has been hitting the road to see investors and potential partners as far away as Silicon Valley.
With oil prices rising, concerns about global warming, traffic congestion
growing and hybrid petrol-electric cars
such as the Toyota Prius selling well, the race to develop viable all-electric vehicles with an acceptable driving range and retail price is accelerating.
Big carmakers such as Renault/Nissan and Daimler's Smart brand are testing prototypes or working with suppliers to develop cheaper and more reliable lithium-ion batteries. Think says it has battery supply contracts with three companies, and is moving into production. It plans to begin selling its cars in Norway, Denmark, Switzerland and the UK next year, with projected sales of 10,000 cars in 2009 and double that by 2011.
The brand will dispense with
expensive, vehicle-packed showrooms, marketing cars online and inviting customers to design their own Thinks in brand stores like those run by Apple. It will eschew
conventional advertising, relying instead on "guerrilla marketing" and deals with car-sharing companies to put trendsetting urbanites
into its cars.
Employing the leanest of lean manufacturing techniques, Think will do no body or parts production itself. It is receiving production advice from Porsche Consulting and assembles the cars from steel frames made in Thailand and plastic panels from Turkey.
the high costs of the cars' batteries and alleviate
doubts about their longevity
, it will retain ownership of them, charging customers for the "naked" car plus a monthly fee for battery use, maintenance, carbon offsetting
, and other "peace-of-mind" services. Each Think will be connected via computer to a team of technicians who can monitor the battery's performance and spot potential problems. More than just a set of greener wheels, the Norwegians are promising car buyers a wired-up "intelligent car" that can be integrated via computer for car pooling, fleet management
, car sharing or rental schemes.
"We want to do what modern companies like Google and Apple are doing that Ford and GM are not doing," says Mr Willums. Over time, he says, Think could even become "more of a service provider than a car company".
The notion of reinventing the wheel in the punishingly competitive auto industry might sound implausible or even hubristic
. Yet Mr Willums, a former head of Volvo Petroleum and self-described "serial entrepreneur", has good credentials
. Alongside Alf Bjorseth, Think's chairman, he co-founded the Renewable Energy Corporation, a solar energy group valued at $8bn last year when it went public
in one of the biggest stock flotations
in clean technology. The partners hope to profit from the coming wave of cleaner cars. "We believe that electric cars are a macro trend, and their use will grow very fast, and for a long time," says Mr Bjorseth.
Think had a head-start on its cars when the Norwegians bought it from an Indian investor last year. The company was founded by Lars Ringdal, a manufacturer of thermoplast dinghies, who during the first oil crisis thought of using the same material to make electric cars. His son Jan developed the idea, producing a car that made its debut at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer. Ford bought Think in 1999 as it scrambled to meet California's legislation on zero-emission cars. The US automaker later scrapped
its electric-car programme, but only after developing a nearly production-ready vehicle.
After buying the company for an undisclosed sum, Mr Willums and his partners, including Mr Ringdal, raised $93m from investors in Scandinavia, the UK and the US. Google, whose founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page are electric-car enthusiasts, were early supporters, organising a discussion last year on "rethinking Think".
Think is now working with Porsche Consulting to fine tune its 10,000-car-a-year plant. In future it hopes to license production capacity to carmakers in countries such as China for possible joint ventures. This added scale will, in turn, help drive down the cost of its components. "Once we get it up and running
, we'll have something to sell," says Mr Willums.
Like other early movers on electric cars, Think has struggled with batteries. A plan to source lithium-ion batteries from Tesla Motors, the Silicon Valley-based company building an all-electric sports car, failed to materialise after Tesla chose to focus on its own delayed launch. Think's initial models will be equipped with sodium
batteries, which Mr Willums describes as "great" but lack the capacity of lithium-ion batteries, which promise greater power and range. The company has contracts to source batteries from Boston-based A123 and Enerdel and battery packs from France's Dassault.
Mr Willums acknowledges that Think's ability to deliver its projected
800 cars a month will hinge on shore up
a reliable battery supply. Think is also talking to European and US electricity companies, which are exploring cooperation with electric carmakers.
As an electric car first mover, Think will be testing price points in a new segment where knowledge of carbuyers' expectations on performance and value for money
remain hazy. With its modest volumes, it also remains unclear how Think will cope when bigger competitors such as Renault/Nissan and Daimler come to market with their own electric cars.
Mr Willums says that the Think will sell for about NKr195,000 (€24,255)- a hefty sum for a microcar, especially as the company will market it as a second or third vehicle. Think will initially focus on young trendsetters and environmentally conscious "early adopters", as well as corporate clients and car-sharing concerns.
Over time, cheaper batteries and improved quicker battery recharging will make the cars cheaper and better, says Mr Willums. "We want to epitomise the car for the city user, and build the 21st-century car company," he says.