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Monday, November 29, 2010

Finding a good niche

As in any other industry, the success of new cleantech businesses usually depends on finding a good niche. Yes, the big oil companies would like to start with billion (or trillion) dollar market segments, but most other companies need to start with a small, well-defined, highly motivated and easy to target segment.

Today the Merc offered a profile of an intriguing electric vehicle company that seems to be taking a different tack than Tesla, Fiskar and the other big VC-funded firms. Green Vehicles Inc. of Salinas (an hour south of San Jose) is selling the Triac, a tricycle commuter car for $25K, with a top speed of 80mph and a “real” (not best case) range of 100 mph round trip.

The $25K MSRP does not include the $7,500 Federal subsidy and a state subsidy (under AB 118) of up to $5,000. So you pay the 10% sales tax on the full $25k, but still the car is cost-competitive (to buy, before operating costs) with conventional cars selling for around $13,500 — and there aren’t a lot of cars in that range. It would get me the 12 miles to work, or the 4 miles to the LRT to work or the CalTrain to San Francisco.

The car is severely limited in size (two people) and like other pure EVs, in range. But to me, this could be the ideal commuter car to throw into the portfolio as a third car, say for households with a teen driver that has a 2-5 mile one-way trip to high school or the mall job.

More importantly, the low up front cost will allow someone to experiment with this restricted-capability vehicle — inherent in pure EV models — to see if it fits their lifestyle. Even if it only holds two people, I think a $14k vehicle (after incentives) has a much bigger audience than the $57k ($35k after incentives) Tesla Model S sedan.

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