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Electric-car start-up aims to keep NUMMI open with zero-emission vehicles

Thu, 11 Mar 2010

Electric car hopeful Aurica Motors LLC is floating a plan to keep open a California joint venture between Toyota and General Motors by building zero emission vehicles there.

Aurica has been negotiating the plan with New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. for the past three months, Aurica General Manager Matt Pitagora said in a phone interview late Wednesday.

“We want to keep the plant open, and we believe we have a very viable plan to do so by manufacturing electric cars,” Pitagora said. “It's all about keeping the lights on.”

Aurica is a little-known start-up based in Santa Clara, Calif., with eight employees and unpublicized finances. But it proposes making electric vehicles within two years at NUMMI, the Fremont, Calif., joint venture set up by Toyota Motors Corp. and GM in 1984.The factory is currently scheduled to shut its doors March 31. GM pulled out of the venture last year as part of its reorganization under Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and Toyota said it would follow suit because the plant isn't financially viable without GM as a partner.

The closure has become a political friction point for Toyota. California officials have tried to persuade Toyota to keep NUMMI open and save jobs. But Toyota has said the decision is final.

Aurica would begin training NUMMI's workforce of 4,700 people in April, Aurica said in a press release. The aim is to keep as many of them as possible on the payroll, Pitagora said.

Aurica hopes to finance the move by tapping green car economic stimulus funds made available by the federal government. The proposal is still in the early stage of negotiation and many details need to be hammered out, including costs of the transfer and what tools might be included.

Aurica has a chassis design for its proposed Aurica E-Car, which would cost in the range of $40,000 to $50,000, Pitagora said. The goal is modular tops that allow for different body styles.

A Toyota spokeswoman in Tokyo said the company had no comment on Aurica's proposal.

Any final decision on the plant's future would need to be made by Toyota in conjunction with Motors Liquidation Co., which overseas GM's cast-off businesses, she said.

Pitagora declined to give details about how much backing Aurica has from private investors or say how much federal aid it would be seeking. “We need to work with the NUMMI people to fine tune the numbers about how much it actually takes to run the plant,” he said.

Aurica has been working over the past four years mainly on a new electronic system that aims to make electric cars travel farther on the same battery charge. The product, called the Recurve Drive System, is still a prototype and the company has yet to make a sale.

Aurica's approach rests largely on using in-wheel motors. Pitagora said Aurica wants to branch into auto manufacturing partly as an outlet for its drivetrain technology.

By Hans Greimel- Automotive News