Smith Electric Vehicles U.S. Corp. announced that it will open an 80,000-square-foot assembly plant at a former airline overhaul base at the Kansas City International Airport and begin producing vehicles in the third quarter of 2009.
The plant's first product will be the Smith Newton, a commercial delivery vehicle capable of traveling 100 miles on a single electric charge, reaching speeds of up to 50 mph and carrying up to 16,280 pounds. The vehicle is aimed at companies whose trucks are depot-based and travel on regular routes in built-up areas.
"The electric vehicle market has been on the fringes for a very long time," Chief Executive Officer Bryan Hansel said during a news conference. "I think we're going to show everybody that there's a genuine place today, that the technology exists to make a difference with electric vehicles."
The company is also teaming with Ford Motor Co. to produce an electric version of its Transit Connect delivery vehicle, beginning next year. Ford plans to release a gasoline-based version later this year, said Tony Reinhart, Ford's regional manager for governmental affairs.
"They allow us to be able to bring this type of vehicle to market quickly," Reinhart said.
Smith Electric, which has moved its headquarters from Arizona to Overland Park, Kan., to Kansas City, will use technology licensed by its co-owner, The Tanfield Group Plc. Tanfield is a British company that has been producing all-electric vehicles for almost a century and already sells the Newton for postal and commercial uses in Europe.
The chassis for the Newton will be produced in the Czech Republic while Ford will produce chassis for the Transit Connect at U.S. and Turkey-based plants, Hansel said. The lithium-ion batteries at the heart of the vehicles will be produced by Kokam America Inc., in the Kansas City suburb of Lee's Summit, Mo.
Hansel acknowledged that initial customers will pay a "premium" for the vehicles the Newton tops out at around $150,000 apiece, or roughly double a comparable diesel-powered vehicle.
But he said customers are also looking to reduce their pollution and are attracted by the fact the vehicles cost about 80 percent less per mile to operate and avoid the volatile price swings of gasoline.
A number of companies have already signed letters of intent to buy the vehicles, including Frito-Lay North America, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, and Charlotte, N.C.-based vending company Compass Group North America.
"They're looking for a solution they don't have to sacrifice to embrace," Hansel said.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon was on hand, praising the creation of jobs in a tough economy, and drove the nearly silent Newton around a parking lot.
"I am extremely proud that we are on the cutting edge of what is going to be a hugely expanding industry and will do everything in my power to make sure that the products that come off these lines have a market," Nixon said.
Hansel wouldn't say how many vehicles it plans to make in its first year but said he was "optimistic" the plant's work force could expand to 200 people in the next three years.