Driving Th!nk, Six Years Apart

Think 017 Th!nk was my first electric car, leased from Ford in 2002-2004. My wife and I loved that little car and were heartbroken when Ford canceled all Th!nk leases. Six years later, I got to drive the Th!nk again. (Photos: New Th!nk in red, old Th!nk in blue.) Think 2002 #2

The company has returned to its roots as a Norwegian automaker, this time with a factory in Finland and another under construction in Elkhart, Ind. Some 1,500 or so Th!nks have been ordered in Europe, and 500 more will start going to U.S. fleets in late 2010, with U.S. sales to consumers expected to start sometime in 2011. The Euro versions use Zebra batteries, and Enerdel lithium-ion batteries will go in the U.S. cars.

Think 005I won’t repeat all the details in the fine review by Linda Nicholes on this same blog — a 100-mile range on 17 kWh battery packs, etc. etc. What I can add, though, is the perspective of someone who drove Th!nk for years and has been behind the wheel of a Toyota RAV4-EV for the past 5 years. (See videos below.)

Th!nk’s cartoon tinyness combined with a surprisingly comfortable and roomy interior were still there, though these are less surprising to people today since Smart cars and Minis have appeared in the ensuing years. I would have liked to see the “2+2” seating configuration that will be offered as an option instead of just the 2-seater hatchback, but that will have to wait.

The most noticeable thing as I started to drive is that this Th!nk didn’t feel quite as peppy as the original, mainly because of the marked regenerative braking that can be felt in both the “Economy” mode and the “Drive” mode.

Think 018The first Th!nk had no regen, and was a beautiful coasting car. In the RAV4-EV, the driver shifts into regen mode when desired. It’s automatic in Th!nk now. Clearly the engineers decided the efficiency advantages are greater with constant regen than with an easy coasting option (helping enable a 100-mile range vs. the 55-mile range on earlier NiCad batteries). For me, it’s a bit less fun, but anyone who never drove the earlier Th!nk probably won’t think twice about it.

In the video interview with this post, I rode with Wilson Leong of Akeena Solar in his virgin drive in an electric car and recorded his reactions. Wilson was able to find a sweet spot when letting up the accelerator pedal that seemed to give the car coasting ability. And overall, he liked the driving experience a lot. He then test-drove a Toyota RAV4-EV brought to the event by owner Michael Moira and like that as much or more than the Th!nk.

Think 006I already knew from experience that the Th!nk would drive well and could meet my driving needs, so of course what I want to know is what it might cost. Th!nk’s David Antonio Wassmann said, “The announcement by Nissan” (of a $32,000 price for the Leaf, or $21,00-$26,000 after incentives) “obviously helped. It forces everybody to go back and say, how do we drive down costs?” The target is to be priced comparable to conventional cars, after incentives.

The battery costs–the main factor–primarily are a result of batteries not being produced in high volumes, he said. “Any car you make in low volume is a luxury car.” The key, said Wassmann, is to get volumes up into the 10’s and 100’s of thousands. We should start to see those 10’s of thousands over the next year from Nissan and GM’s Chevy Volt, with 100’s of thousands by 2012 from Nissan and an unknown quantities of Volts. With any luck, Th!nk will ramp up too.

Think 009 Wassmann told me all the electronics have been updated since earlier Th!nks, the software is improved, all Th!nks have global positioning systems (GPS) and the ability to do live communications (so, for example, you’ll know remotely when the car has finished charging). There’s an iPhone app ready and waiting for the cars.

Besides the 120-volt and 240-volt charging options, the company has been testing fast charging with the Enerdel batteries. “We know we can” do it, Wassman said, but won’t be rushing to offer a fast-charging option, partly because there is no U.S. standard yet for fast-charge equipment, as they have in Japan.

Thanks go to a number of groups in addition to Th!nk for organizing the test-drives today: our host Better Place, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, Bay Area Clean Cities, the Bay Area Council, and Silicon Valley Network Joint Venture.

–Sherry Boschert

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