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Auto Start-Ups Chase Dreams That Grew from EV1 Electric Car

The paths of Bob Purcell and Don Runkle, who once worked on the same team developing General Motors’ electric vehicle EV1, overlapped yet again last week, when both men, who are now chief executives of start-ups, saw their companies announce new funding rounds.

Purcell, who led the GM Advanced Technology Vehicles Group between 1994 and 2002, is still plugging away at the electric-drive concept at his start-up Protean Electric. “This isn’t a job for me. This is my life’s work,” said Purcell in an interview with VentureWire.

Protean Electric has just raised $84 million, as it starts operations in China where it plans to make in-wheel electric motors that could be used in pure-electric and hybrid-electric vehicles.

Runkle, on the other hand, isn’t pursuing the electric-drive dream. He’s developing cheaper and more efficient engines that can run on gasoline, diesel, and compressed natural gas, through EcoMotors, a Bill Gates and Khosla Ventures-backed company that has just raised a new round of financing led by Braemar Energy Ventures. Runkle had at one time headed the Impact electric vehicle at GM which led to the production of EV1.

After years in development, GM abandoned EV1. The automaker is now selling a hybrid plug-in sedan called the Volt.

Asked what is different in the electric vehicle world compared to the years when EV1 was in development, Purcell said: “Batteries are moving forward. But the real difference is China…China is in a position to lead the next era of the automobile. The next era of the automobile will be high volume production of eco-friendly vehicles.”

The country, for example, plans to produce 500,000 electric vehicles by 2015, followed by two million by 2020. President Obama has also set goal for the U.S. to have a million electric cars on the road by 2015, but a commitment by the Chinese government has more legs because of the state-managed economy in that country.

EcoMotors, too, sees interest in China for its fuel-efficient motors. One of its two important customers is Zhongding Holding (Group) Co., an automotive supplier. Andrew Chung, who leads Khosla Ventures’ activities in China, joined the EcoMotors board in December.

For Runkle, now is the time to bring new engine ideas to the market. Critics say that “[Big auto makers] in Detroit and Frankfurt and Tokyo, they never do anything new and they never create anything new,” said Runkle.

But what he sees is different. “Look at all the new vehicles. There are all kinds of new engines, and new motors…There’s a lot of dynamics right now in the general area of propulsion,” said Runkle.


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