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Valley Briefing

Thinking Ahead : CALSTART: The Development of a Research Consortium

February 11, 1996|JILL LEOVY

CALSTART began in the midst of the worst downturn in defense industry in the region's history. Small wonder, then, that it was greeted like a shaft of sunlight through a storm.

It was 1992, and scores of aerospace workers were reeling from layoffs, and once-bustling fighter-plane plants loomed in darkened hulks over Burbank. The timing was perfect for electric-car guru Lon Bell to announce his plan to make Burbank the hub of a new industry--using some of the very buildings vacated by defense firms.

Bell proposed a research consortium, promising an alluring combination of clean air, good jobs, and smooth-driving, smoke-free vehicles that whirr like sewing machines.

City officials and congressmen lined up behind him, and Burbank braced to become the Silicon Valley of electric cars. Money flowed in--$14 million from the private sector and $6 million from government.

CALSTART set out to channel funds toward the advancement of transportation technology, particularly in the area of electric vehicles. Over the years it has spent about $75 million, about 40% of that in contributions from government and the rest from its array of member companies, including Hughes and Southern California Gas.

In nearly four years, CALSTART's roster has expanded to more than 175 participants from the original 40. CALSTART has also acted as an incubator for start-up firms--providing space, equipment, and information--and has helped team companies for numerous high-tech development projects, from electric school buses to the inexpensive Cybertran.

Although there are 28 companies in CALSTART's business incubators, only one company has successfully hatched. That's the one owned by Bell himself--Amerigon, which produces electric cars in Monrovia.

Though the first prototype CALSTART rolled out was an electric car, progress along those lines has been halting. Most recently, auto makers have argued that the state should roll back its mandate for electric cars because the technology has lagged.

This lag has brought criticism. Alan Cacconi, president of the electric-car firm AC Propulsion in San Dimas, believes glossy brochures, not futuristic technology, are what CALSTART excels at. "Their P.R. efforts have benefited the environmental community, but a lot of money has been spent and we haven't seen a lot of advanced technology," he said.

CALSTART spokesman Bill Van Amburg counters that the consortium's purpose is not to create technology but to encourage companies to do so. It selects projects that need a research boost and also have potential market value, which sometimes means, "walking the line between things that are great technology and things that are doable and usable," he said.

CALSTART also points to projects that have bloomed. One is Green Motorworks of North Hollywood, one of the only electric-car dealerships in existence, which is now selling a Norwegian car that CALSTART arranged to import.

"We would be out of business without CALSTART today," said company President William Meurer. Instead, the dealership just had its first profitable month.

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1992

June 1992: CALSTART is officially announced as a nonprofit public-private effort to develop advanced transportation technologies.

December 1992: CALSTART rolls out its flagship vehicle--the Showcase Electric Vehicle--to demonstrate California-made technologies to a growing worldwide industry.

1993

March 1993: CALSTART rolls out its first electric transit bus.

1994

February 1994: CALSTART rolls out its running chassis, essentially the "guts" of an electric vehicle minus body and interior to demonstrate low-cost manufacturing.

May 1994: CALSTART rolls out the nation's first electric school bus.

December 1994: CALSTART rolls out three military transport buses powered by fully integrated hybrid drive systems, combining the strengths of natural gas and electric power for increased range and low emissions.

1995

October 1995: CALSTART and PIVCO roll out an affordable electric car called the Citi, which will be manufactured in California.

October 1995: CALSTART and Cybertran International announce a partnership to develop an affordable high-speed passenger rail system to be built in California.

1996

February 1996: Details are released of a proposed deal that would repeal the state's mandate that 2% of the vehicles offered for sale in California be electric and replace it with voluntary contracts that let auto companies decide how many vehicles to produce.

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Source: CALSTART

Researched by JILL LEOVY / Los Angeles Times

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