On Wednesday, Amp Motorworks ceremoniously handed over the keys for the first of 1,000 electric Mercedes-Benz ML 350 SUVs to Gisli Gislason, the chairman and chief executive of Iceland’s Northern Lights Energy. When Amp’s PR man invited me to the festivities, I decided a short road trip through the Midwest wouldn’t be too painful a price to see Amp’s headquarters for the first time and attend the press conference.
Amp’s digs are situated right off the Ronald Reagan Cross County Parkway in the pleasant suburban town of Blue Ash on the outskirts of Cincinnati. The headquarters includes a modernly designed administrative building and about 10 remarkably clean car bays on each side. Electric vehicle garages don’t have to deal with as much grime as you average Jiffy Lube.
In the showroom, I was able to speak with the CEO of Nothern Lights Energy briefly. At roughly $100,000 a pop, Gisli Gislason is confident that he can sell the units over in Iceland for a profit. Since there are no import tariffs on electric vehicles in Iceland, the electric upfitted SUV’s will be sold for about the same price as a regular Mercedes ML 350. When you factor in the high gasoline prices, about $8 a gallon right now, a Mercedes EV becomes a logical buy in the island country. Iceland also generates much of its electricity through geothermal and hydroelectric sources, which means these electric vehicles will truly be clean cars.
The new CEO of Amp, James Taylor, gave a short speech along with Gisli Gislason, and even Mark Mallory, the Mayor of Cincinnati, made an appearance. Taylor symbolically handed over the keys to the converted ML 350 on the showroom floor to the Icelandic CEO, who happily and carefully drove the car out the garage door to much fanfare and photographs.
Afterwards, I spoke to a mechanic about the day-to-day process of assembling these upfitted electric vehicles. He was a retiree who had a dream of building his own electric vehicles, but jumped at the opportunity to work on the EVs at the AMP garage. He said there are about 4 mechanics and 4 electrical engineers in the garage. Which raised a logistical question of how they were going to expand to meet the newfound demand of 1,000 vehicles in five years.
I met with JD Staley, Director of Sales and Marketing to test-drive the electric Mercedes. I expected it to behave much like their Equinox I test-drove last summer. But the ride was exceptionally smooth, and the ML 350 handled like a luxury vehicle. Aside from the lack of engine noise, a casual driver would not be able to distinguish the way it drives from a regular Mercedes SUV. This is what Amp intended, to make the transition to electric as gentle as possible. I was allowed to floor it on the backstretch behind the facility, and acceleration is pretty good with more torque than the specified 10-second 0-60 time lets on. With an approximate range of 100 miles per charge and 5 seat capacity, the Amp Electric ML 350 should be an easy sell in Iceland. While driving, I asked Staley about how they were going to satisfy the order of 1,000 vehicles. He said they are looking at cites expand their assembly capacity so they can produce 20 vehicles a month starting next Fall.
Amp is still a small company with great ambition and tall orders to fulfill. I first covered them in 2008 and in spite of the economy, they managed to grow and keep putting real, drivable electric vehicles on the road. In the coming years, Amp will be expanding capacity and creating jobs in the Midwest. With innovative ideas and the courage to follow through, Amp is a model 21st century American company I look forward to seeing grow.
The folks over at AMP Motorworks were nice enough to let me ride along in their Progressive X Prize AMP’d Sky at the Remy headquarters. They also let me drive their small electric SUV, the AMP Equinox.
We’ll start with the Equinox. The GM SUV is converted to electric pretty seamlessly. You really cannot tell the vehicle is electric from the exterior or interior. None of the cabin space is altered by the battery pack space requirements. The ignition is a simple, turn key operation, just like any other car. When I let off of the brake, the vehicle lurched forward very naturally, like it was floating, not pulling. The SUV behaved like it should around the corners and the regenerative braking was not obtrusive. The most noticeable example of regen braking done wrong would be the Mini E, which seems to slam you into the wheel every time you let off of the gas. The AMP Equinox behaved exactly as an SUV should, smooth and comfortable, with enough pep to accelerate onto the highway. I really have no criticism of the vehicle, it does make a little more noise than I expected. The motor spools when you accelerate, and makes about the same amount of noise as a quiet, new regular car. And there are some “electric noises” when some controlling devices seem to be communicating.
Overall, the AMP Equinox is a fantastic premise, a roomy SUV for the small family. Homeowners are the demographic that will most easily be able to charge their electric vehicles. So a fully capable electric SUV is a great way for most of America to reduce their consumption and carbon footprint, all while saving money over time.
Next, I got to ride along in the AMP Sky. AMP’s driver was really doing a good job dissolving the past belief that electric cars can’t be fun. Before I rode along, he was doing some pretty vicious donuts in the parking lot. And he made sure to squeel the tires at least a little bit with every rider, no matter how old and timid. I took a little video with my point and shoot, and I had to be careful not to let it slip out of my hands. The video is not very good quality, but it gives you a good idea of the sound the car makes, and it’s power, although he didn’t have enough room to really unleash it.
In closing, these are a couple great, electric cars. However, AMP Motorworks is still a relatively small operation. Hopefully, they can expand in the next few years so that we can see many more of their conversions on the road.
It was already well known that Remy will be supplying AMP with electric motors and controllers for their electric car conversions. But on August 10, 2010, Jay Pittas, the President of Remy and Steve Burns of AMP sat down in Pendleton, IN to sign an official three year contract to supply electric motors for Amp’s Electric Equinox.
I was lucky enough to be present at the event, which proved to be as informative as it was entertaining.
Remy’s headquarters is located about 20 minutes north of Indianapolis, IN, situated among acres of corn fields and your typical Indiana rural scenery. Once you turn the corner around a wooded area, a massive parking lot opens up and you see pretty much what you expect a midwest corporate headquarters to look like: an expansive 4 story concrete structure. I was the first media there, so I really didn’t know what to expect. Perhaps I got the scoop on the local media, or Indiana really doesn’t care much for electric vehicles yet. The first arrivals were herded to the board room, and I schmoozed as much as I could with energy consultants and publicity firm employees. Eventually, the AMP team showed up, fresh off of their performance at the Automotive X Prize competition, where they reached the finals. Finally, some local reporters and media outlets arrived with the big cameras and we were ready to begin the ceremony.
Jay Pittas of Remy started the formalities. Solidifying his belief in the AMP Equinox because, “A mother can actually take a couple kids to a soccer game, and it would be a practical vehicle.” Steve Burns then stated the importance of the motor as the “heart and soul” of the electric vehicle because an inefficient one can kill the battery life. Steve reiterated how grateful he was to find such a cheap motor, then corrected himself, describing it as inexpensive, to laughs from the crowd. Overall, the two executives were very happy with the deal, and the two signed the contracts. One Remy employee wisecracked about how Pittas should not forget to move a decimal place over on the price.
Next we were encouraged to come downstairs to the entrance for interviews with the employees and to test drive the AMP Equinox and the AMP Sky that were driven at the Progressive Automotive X Prize.
I got to talk to various AMP employees including the CEO, Steve Burns. They have already delivered a few cars to early customers. Several fleet owners have asked to purchase more conversion vehicles than AMP can put out right now. It sounds like the general consensus is that they are more than happy to continue retrofitting American vehicles, and they have no plans of manufacturing an original electric car yet. Research and development for electric vehicles is an arduous and expensive process. AMP bypasses this by retrofitting tried and tested, select American cars.
The AMP electric car conversion process is very simple. You can reserve your AMP, Equinox, or Solstice at AMPElectricVehicles.com. They purchase the ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) vehicle, take out the old parts, and install the electric drive-train, which has already been measured and weighed so that it doesn’t alter the original safety and handling specifications. It is pretty much a bolt-in operation, and the components fit right into place on the select vehicles, so you cannot just ask them to electrify your ’86 Camaro. If someone were to purchase one of AMP’s vehicles today, Burns says the car would be converted and ready in about a month.
Steve Burns and other employees all noted how receiving empty shells or “gliders” from GM would drastically reduce the price of the vehicles. Not only would they not have to buy the original ICE drivetrain, but it would reduce assembly time. Burns said using glider donors could reduce the price of the AMP Equinox from $50,000 to somewhere in the $30,000 range. So you would be getting a full size electric SUV for around the same price as the compact Nissan Leaf. The Equinox would also have a greater electric range than the Leaf. The problem is getting companies like GM to agree to selling these empty shells.
The electric vehicle industry has always had a stark divide between the small and willing, and the behemoth car manufacturers that do not lend themselves to change. Hopefully, more American companies like AMP and Remy can create powerful partnerships to give the people a choice in the way they drive.
Next Post: I get to drive the Equinox, then I go for a wild ride in the Amp Sky (0-60 in 6 seconds).