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May 13th, 2010

The good and bad news: Navistar rolling out first truck with A123 Li-ion battery

Published on May 13th, 2010 | By: pwray@ceramics.org

Navistar’s first eStar 100-mile electric truck, powered by one of A123 System’s batteries, is rolling off the assembly line. I know that because I “participated” in a bizarre conference call, about what should be good news, organized by the White House and DOE today.

There is, indeed, a kernel of good news in this, in that some of the pieces to practical electric transportation are starting to come together. In addition, I am certainly happy to see places like Wakarusa, Indiana, are manufacturing something.

But the conference call felt like hastily called event thrown together with last-minute planning. Maybe the big media folks got an early “heads up,” but I got exactly 33 minutes notice. Then I had to listen to folks who are normally very interesting – White House economist Jared Bernstein, DOE senior advisor Matt Rogers and “Director of Recovery for Automotive Workers and Communities” Ed Montgomery – speedread obviously pre-prepared statements. Speedread doesn’t quite do justice to how they fast they read their spiel. Think of rabid chipmunks on meth. Talk about three guys who didn’t act like they wanted to be there. Copies of their remarks weren’t available before or after the call.

I have a hunch about why they may have felt a little uncomfortable, aside from things being thrown together at the last minute. When it got to the Q & A time (all of five questions were permitted, apparently the minimum qualification for a “conference call”) one reporter wanted an explanation of why GM and Chrysler still had not been granted loans when DOE has doled out only “$9 billion in loans from the $25 billion program.”

And then there was the uncomfortable question about why Navistar is using a truck designed in and licensed from a U.K. firm.

And then things, at least from my perspective, went from worse to worst. Someone from an Indiana newspaper asked Bernstein and Rogers exactly how many new people Navistar had hired. I am not sure which one of them responded, but the answer was six.

Six!

Navistar received a $39.2 million federal stimulus grant last August and the net result so far is six new employees and one truck???

Maybe he said sixty. I hope so. But when another reporter pressed the three about the apparent slowness in hiring, Rogers wasted no time in throwing A123 System under the bus. He said, essentially, that Navistar can only build the trucks as fast as A123 makes the batteries. As I have noted previously, A123 received a $250 million stimulus grant to make batteries.

Now, I have no way of knowing who is really dragging their feet in this, but I am very clear that the purpose of the stimulus money is to provide, you know, jobs. Because A123 was starting its battery manufacturing from the ground up, I think it is very probable that it has done some hiring in Michigan.

On paper, the Obama administration and the DOE’s energy efforts are great. But, when it comes to the implementation phase, I still get the feeling some key people in the bureaucracy still don”t haven’t bought into the concept of “The fierce urgency of now.”

More on this tomorrow.



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