We had the chance to meet Steve Burns when he came to the North American International Auto Show in Detroit earlier this month. Steve Burns is the CEO of AMP Electric Vehicles, a Cincinnati, OH-based company that is creating electric vehicles without building cars themselves. AMP believes in electrifying vehicles, but doesn't think you have to build an entirely new car in order to to do it. Instead, they are converting a stock Saturn Sky to run on electric power by removing the internal combustion engine and gas tank, and putting in batteries and direct drive electric motors, and entering it in the XPrize competition to be run later this year.
Steve has founded a number of companies over the past decade, most recently iTookThisOnMyPhone.com, a mobile photo and video-sharing technology company, as well as now serving as CEO of AMP.
We asked Steve Burns to be our EcoGeek of the Week and to tell us more about the AMP approach to building electric vehicles.
EG: How did you get started with electric cars in the first place?
SB: I have wanted to build an electric car since college (30 years ago). About 3 years ago, it seemed like the core technologies were in place to give it a shot. Batteries, motor technologies, control/power electronics and CAN bus integration in most modern vehicles. So, we founded the company 3 years ago. I was just an investor for the first two years and then about a year ago, I joined the company as CEO.
EG: How large of a company is AMP? How many vehicles have you converted to date, and how many do you expect to convert this year?
SB: AMP is now about 25 people. After three years in a development lab, this month we moved into our showroom and production facility and have starting converting the first customer vehicle. First customer vehicle will be delivered this month. Our goal is to convert 1000 vehicles this year.
EG: You started out selling your cars only within a 150 mile radius of your headquarters in Cincinnati, but you are now distributing more widely. Are AMP cars available nationwide? How are you handling sales and distribution at this point? Are there any plans for international sales?
SB: Yes, we are trying to limit our initial sales to the greater Cincinnati area. Because we currently have only one sales/service center, we want our early customers to be physically close. The thought process behind this decision is that we can work very closely with our early customer to make sure their experience is a pleasant one. However, some our our potential customers won't take "no" for an answer, and so a percentage of our intial vehciels will to to customers outside the greater Cincinnati area. In short order, we do plan on selling conversions in other areas of the U.S.
EG: Can you give us some statistics for an AMP conversion Sky?
SB: The AMP'd Sky has 150 miles of range, top speed of 90mph and 0-60mph in about 8 seconds. Battery pack is 37kwh.
EG This came from EcoGeek reader darius: What about the range on the existing batteries? How was the heating handled? After all you were in a very cold weather.
SB: Most companies that are planning on introducing EV's in the near future are planning on using some form of Lithium cells. Different Lithium chemistries have different characteristics. Like everything in life, there are always tradeoffs. For example the most energy dense chemistries also tend to be the most dangerous. With our chemistry choice, we have tried to strike a balance between safety, range, life cycle and cold weather capabilities. With an emphasis on Safety. Our range goal is 150 miles on a charge. However, in very cold weather (below -20 C), our control software restricts acceleration and top speed until such time that the cells begin to warm up. Even with these advanced control algorithms, we do think it is safe to say that in sub zero weather, the range will not be the full 150 miles.
As for cabin heat, we utilize the heat generated from our motors and power electronics. However, because these systems are so efficient and thereby do not produce a lot of heat during normal driving, we are planning on having an auxilary, small electric heater in our vehicles.
EG: Your XPrize vehicle is based on the Saturn Sky, but GM has closed Saturn, so that source of vehicles for conversion is closed. (The Pontiac Solstice was a similar car, but GM has ended the Pontiac line, too.) How does this affect your entry and the longer term outlook for AMP?
SB: Although the Saturn Sky and Pontiac Solstice are no longer in production, there are still over 100,000 of them on the road. We have enough advanced orders from people with used SKY's and Solstices that we have begun production. We are about to announce a 2010 Crossover conversion in Feb. Our goal is to have approx 10 different models that are available to be AMP'd over the next two years. However, our XPrize racer remains a converted SKY.
EG: During our test drive in Detroit, you told me that you retain many of the original systems, such as the brakes, in the vehicle. Does the AMP conversion do regenerative braking?
SB: Yes, we do have regenerative braking. It works in conjuction with the hydraulic braking system. We do not modify the factory hydraulic braking system, only add some asssited braking via regenerative braking from the motors.
EG: What do the manufacturers think about what you are doing?
SB: We have done our Saturn and Pontiac conversions without the help of their OEM. However, it is natural to think that at some point we may work with the OEM of some or all of our conversion vehicles. But at this time, most of the OEM's are trying to figure out their own EV strategy. However, we have secured parts deals with some Tier 1 automotive suppliers. This is a very big step for us. Usually, the Tier 1 suppliers don't work with smaller players like us.
EG: How are service and warranty issues handled for your vehicles?
SB: Our conversions may void some or all of the manufacturer's original warranty. We however will warrant the drivetrain for 3 years or 36,000 miles.
EG: How is your approach to building electric vehicles the best way to win the XPrize competition?
SB: Our mission to get Americans driving electric miles began well before the XPrize. While I can't say that electric propulsion is the best mechanism to win the XPrize (only time will tell), I can say that we feel it is the best way for America to begin to move away from oil.
EG: What are the biggest hurdles to overcome in the XPrize competition?
SB: For us, the great thing about the XPrize is that they have never requested anything of us that we don't already have or plan to have. The toughest thing for us to date has been complying with the paperwork required to get through the various stages. It is good discipline for us, but it does distract a bit from our core business of producing vehicles for customers.
EG: What would it mean if AMP won the X Prize?
SB: If AMP wins the XPrize:
a) Naturally, the cash would be nice.
b) But the main benefit of winning the XPrize would be the validation that AMP engineering is solid and that our premise of converting best of breed modern vehicles is a great way to bring change to an industry that has been based on one theme (oil) for 100 years.
EG: What do you think will be the outcome of the X Prize competition overall? Do you think this going to improve the awareness of electric cars or have other benefits?
SB: The XPrize consists of many different propulsion systems. I think that if a pure EV wins the race, it will be a significant step toward changing the general population's attitude toward EV's.
EG: You are working with existing pieces to put these vehicles together. Does a different assembly approach, like having distributed assembly facilities scattered over the country, make more sense than the traditional concentrated assembly line?
SB: We are considering both the traditional approach to automotive manufacturing (one big factory builds the vehicles and then shipping them to dealers/customers) as well as a micro brewery approach (many smaller shops across the country to perform conversions and service the customers afterward). We are still evaluating the best method to roll our plan across the U.S.
EG: Your approach treats cars as a commodity item rather than a closed system. It seems reminiscent of the early PCs, where consumers could start to exchange parts inside their computers, and a range of possibilities opened up, rather than computers being a fixed device. Does the electrification of vehicles - particularly the way you are approaching it - mean that cars might start to become more open systems that can have different pieces installed and swapped in and out?
SB: I like your PC analogy. We are building our vehicles as openly as possible so that as technology advances, we can upgrade individual pieces over time as users request. At this time, I don't think the standards are there such that end users will be able to do these upgrades themselves, but overtime that may happen.
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