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December 25, 2009

News & Features

Reva has been making electric cars for years -- but its time may have come

New York Times News Service


Chetan Kumar Maini, the vice chairman and chief technology officer of Reva Electric Car Company, looks over his company's cars in Bangalore, India. (Photo by Kuni Takahashi / Associated Press)

BANGALORE, India -- Years before the sleek Tesla Roadster hugged West Coast highways or General Motors unveiled the Chevrolet Volt, a tiny Indian car firm was making and selling stubby electric vehicles turned out by a nondescript factory in Bangalore.

The Reva Electric Car Co. has more all-electric vehicles on the road than any other company, but has yet to turn a profit. Now, Reva's moment may have arrived.
Last month, General Motors announced that it would use Reva's technology in the electric version of its Chevrolet Spark, a small car whose conventional gasoline version GM already sells in India and will be selling in the U.S. by 2011. The electric version of the Spark is expected to go on sale in India by the end of next year, according to GM officials.

  • • Reva's new model, the NXR, will comply with European safety regulations, seat four and travel up to 100 miles on a full battery charge, at speeds of over 40 miles an hour -- what's known in the industry as a city car.
  • • The NXR, which is about a foot and a half shorter than the Mini Cooper, will come in two variations. In Europe, the higher-end model will sell for about 15,000 euros, or $22,000, not including batteries, which the company will lease for an undetermined monthly fee.

Reva's technology is "second to none," says Karl Slym, president and managing director of GM India. He says Reva's appeal came from its drive train, the collection of components that move the car, which is easily installed in different vehicles and works with various batteries.

GM's vote of confidence is a big boost for the privately held company, which has been making vehicles for eight years. It's trying to develop three businesses: licensing Reva technology to automakers like GM; building cars under the Reva brand; and franchising production of Reva cars to other manufacturers.

This third business may soon bring Reva to the U.S. The company is in talks with Bannon Automotive, a company based in Long Island, to franchise production of its new NXR model in New York. Once a deal is struck, a plant could be up and running in 12 months.

"I have been doing this for 15 years, and I have never seen everything come together like I have" now, says Chetan Kumar Maini, the 39-year-old vice chairman and chief technology officer of Reva. The company is jointly owned by his family; AEV LLC, a small technology company based near Los Angeles; and two venture capital firms.
The company plans to release one new model every year, and has a sporty coupe, the NXG, ready to be released in 2011. If all goes according to plan -- a big if -- Reva, which is named after Maini's mother, should turn a profit sometime next year, he says.
Maini, however, doesn't come across as a wide-eyed technology evangelist. He doesn't brag excessively or predict the death of the internal-combustion engine like other electric-car entrepreneurs.

"Electrics are not going to overnight replace gasoline engines," he says. "But they could be a large portion of" cars sold in the next 10 years. Reva is betting on it.


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