As major automakers pour billions into electric vehicles and batteries, Rick Woodbury is single-handedly keeping his EV dream alive.
At Commuter Cars in Spokane, Wash., Woodbury is a one-man car company. He formerly had nine employees but had to let them go.
"I'm a one-man team," Woodbury says. "It's a lot of work just trying to get cars delivered to customers. It's a challenge."
Woodbury, a 60-year-old former Porsche-Audi dealership sales manager, sells a skinny two-seater called the Tango for about $150,000, depending on customer specs. Because his finances are tight, he has no room for error or debt. Revenues from one car get eaten up right way in building the next one. Woodbury has sold 10 cars so far.
Marginal as his operation may seem, Commuter Cars -- and many similar EV startups -- represent an entrepreneurial surge that the automotive industry hasn't seen since its founding days, when carriage makers across the country tried to outfit their rigs with engines.
Think of this band of outsiders as the garage-band rebels of the car business. Although many may not survive, they are bringing new ideas and energy into the closed world of major car companies.
"The smaller entrepreneurial players have really been the ones pushing the envelope," says Oliver Hazimeh, head of the global e-Mobility practice at consulting company PRTM.
"You see a lot of white space, opportunities. That's why you have people saying, 'Maybe there's space for me.'"
One key factor, Hazimeh adds, is that electric powertrains are easier for newcomers to put together than internal combustion engines.
According to most estimates, "pure" battery electric vehicles will have a small market share over the next decade. Boston Consulting Group, for instance, projects that EVs will account for only 2 percent of U.S. vehicle sales by 2020.
But the new companies' push to develop EV technology, coupled with crusading enthusiasm for the environmental benefits of electric drive, are part of the reason mainstream automakers are getting into the game. One example: Former GM product chief Bob Lutz often credited Tesla Motors' EV Roadster with prompting GM to build its Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid.