What dark force lures veteran auto engineers back into the industry after they’ve opted for early retirement? And why do apparently sane people willingly return to the pressure and oh-dark-thirty meetings of the vehicle development world?
For Keith Takasawa, his DNA must be to blame. Last July, not long after leaving a 32-year career at Ford (where he most recently headed the Escape/Mazda Tribute program), he joined Norway-based electric vehicle maker THINK. As Director of Product Development for North America, Takasawa is in charge of bringing the company’s reborn EV range to the U.S. retail market, including production in Elkhart, IN.
“A number of things attracted me to this company, as well as my decision to return to the industry,” Takasawa explained. “One is the technical challenge of EV development and commercialization. I also like the entrepreneurial part of it, too, getting into something on the ground-floor level.
“And I was interested in the small size of the company,” he said. “I wanted to see how that felt.”
After 11 months on the job, Takasawa reports the feeling is good—even though the tiny OEM’s product-development group is “very lean”—about 40 people in Norway.
“I worked at Mazda for three years and I thought it was a lean company! You haven’t seen lean until you’ve seen THINK. It’s a very, very talented and dedicated group,” he said.
Collaborating with EnerDel and AeroVironment
Takasawa himself represents THINK’s entire North American engineering team, but up-staffing is soon to come. “We’ll be looking for virtually all kinds of engineers—those with traditional automotive experience as well as electric-drivetrain engineers responsible for power control units, motor, and batteries,” he said. NVH experts are critical for the company’s EV development, he added.
Besides product development, THINK North America will be responsible for manufacturing, sales, and distribution. Production at the Elkhart plant is scheduled to begin in early 2011.
The current City is assembled on contract by Valmet in Finland (which also assembles the Porsche Boxster and Cayman and is preparing to build Fisker’s Karma HEV). Approximately 1500 City cars are on the road in Europe.
“We have accumulated about 30 million miles of customer usage with City,” said Takasawa. He noted that the U.S. model will have a top speed of more than 70 mph (112 km/h) and a range of more than 100 miles (161 km) per charge.
In addition to establishing the U.S. plant, THINK also has been moving aggressively on infrastructure development. Earlier this year, THINK signed a deal with AeroVironment (AV) to use the City EV as development and demonstration vehicle in conjunction with AV's Level III fast-charging system.
The AV fast charger will enable the car’s EnerDel lithium-ion battery to be charged from a depleted state to 80% state-of-charge in 15 minutes. The fast charger is intended as an alternative to the City’s existing onboard AC charging system that can operate on 110 or 220 v.
THINK and EnerDel engineers have been working with Tokyo Electric Power Company on a fast-charging protocol. THINK managers believe fast charging’s importance will be for urban commercial-fleet users.
Takasawa praises the close relationship THINK’s engineering team has with the battery engineers at Indianapolis-based EnerDel (which is a business unit of Ener1, currently THINK’s largest shareholder).
“Both companies’ successes are linked very tightly to each other—more so than most other supplier-OEM relationships,” he observed. “We have a very unified goal in front of us and we have a strong working relationship as a result. I’ve been getting down to Indy more often. As we staff up the N.A. organization we’ll have a larger and larger role.”
The U.S. plant’s initial product will be a version of the current City homologated to U.S. government standards. But the design pipeline is being filled with interesting variants as well as distinctly different models.
Lightweighting is a major priority
The current-generation City is an evolution of the car AEI readers are familiar with from when Ford owned THINK in 1999-2003. The U.S.-built model will feature an EnerDel-supplied Li-ion battery pack with 384 prismatic cells per battery.
“The pack has 24 kW-hr capacity from 372 volts and weighs on the order of 620 lb,” Takasawa said. "There is no active cooling except in warm climates, where we’ll have active air cooling.”
He acknowledged that a liquid-cooled battery pack would provide some thermal-conditioning opportunities but said “we don’t believe we need it, based on our development work.”
THINK handles its own PCU (power-control unit) design, including all the software that goes in it. “We see it as a core competency,” said Takasawa. The company will soon launch its Gen-2 PCU in Europe; it will be applied to U.S. cars at launch.
The Gen 2 unit represents a “substantial” cost reduction from the current-gen PCU, noted Takasawa. “And we expect to take even more cost out of the Gen 3, which we’re just starting to develop,” he said.
The current City is powered by a 30-kW continuous/35-kW peak synchronous electric machine. Takasawa said upgraded motors are in development for the near future—“we have a lot of development work going on in this area,” he said.
Unlike some current EVs that are derived from conventional vehicles, THINK designs its cars from the ground up as EVs. “We don’t have to make compromises with this approach,” Takasawa asserted.
For example, the company’s NVH engineering approach “is very different from those used by others for their HEVs and gas-engined cars,” he said. “Tire development is a big deal for us, too—reducing both tire noise and rolling resistance is much more important for us than on a gas-engined car.”
THINK’s production-tire partner is Michelin; the company also is working with other tire suppliers on future developments.
The current-generation City shows THINK’s vehicle-structure engineering philosophy. Its body-in-white is extruded, aircraft-alloy aluminum. The body panels are ASA/ABS co-extrusions, molded in color and pressure-thermoformed.
“Our current color palette is blue, yellow, white, and black, but we’re working with molders and plastics suppliers in the U.S. on some new technology that we’re very excited about and we hope to bring to market,” Takasawa noted.
The current City’s suspension components are mostly steel, because the first-generation design strategy was to employ various parts from other European carmakers (primarily PSA) to reduce cost. Takasawa said the focus on mass reduction for the future portfolio has THINK’s engineers investigating lightweight materials for the chassis.
The City’s curb weight is approximately 2280 lb (1034 kg)—the battery pack accounting for 620 lb (281 kg) of the total vehicle mass.
The car’s mass distribution is approximately 50-50%; it’s a short car and the battery’s mounted amidships, under the seats.
“Weight reduction across the board is a huge opportunity for us, because battery cost is a huge part of the cost of the car,” he said. “Everything we can do to get weight out and efficiency up is critical.”
Takasawa clearly is stoked about bringing a career’s worth of engineering experience to not only a new company but also a new technology space and market. The prospects of the future make jumping back into the fray “really exciting,” he said—even worth the early-morning conference calls with his Scandinavian colleagues.