Famed car designer Gordon Murray jumped into the green-car field last year with plans for the T.25, a mini-car design that he said would be capable of getting up to 70 miles per gallon running on gasoline or diesel.
Now Murray says his company, Gordon Murray Design is working on a new design, the T.26, aimed at Southeast Asian markets.
Murray didn't share too many details on plans for the T.26, though he did say it could be built using hybrid-electric and all-electric drive trains, as well as one that runs purely on gasoline. Both vehicles will be based on the same chassis and manufacturing process and could be two or four-passenger vehicles, he said.
But as with the T.25, his company isn't planning to mass-produce the T.26 itself. Instead, it plans to license the design and manufacturing processes to other companies.
"We've already got a long line of people who have approached us to be possible customers" for the T.25, said Murray. "Some would want to manufacture the cars themselves, and some we'd steer in the direction of someone who can build that factory for them."
GMD has received "somewhat north of $10 million" in funding from Mohr Davidow Ventures, said MDV general partner Jonathan Feiber. Murray's model of licensing manufacturing to other companies – and the efficiencies of the manufacturing process itself, as well as the vehicle that will be the end result – is part of what attracted the venture firm's interest, he said.
"The existing manufacturers - from the weakest to the strongest - build high-quality vehicles, and they're spending a lot of money to innovate," Feiber said. "If you're going to compete with them, you're going to have to do something that's fundamentally different."
For example, GMD says factories for its vehicles will be about one-fifth the size of conventional car factories, consume less energy and require fewer components.
Licensing, however, is also an uncharted, untested concept in the automotive world and, if history is a guide, it could face an uphill climb. Car manufacturers are notoriously conservative, adopting technology and components from new suppliers only after rigorous testing. Most of the time, they also work with established companies. After all, claiming that someone else came up with the design – we're just selling it – is not a recognized defense in court.
Tesla Motors has run into difficulties in seeking to build its own high-end all-electric cars. Last month it announced it would lay off employees, delay the launch of its $60,000 Model S – the follow-up model to its $109,000 Roadster – and close its Detroit office (see Cash-Strapped Tesla Raises $40M, Loses Lawsuit).
A lot of companies also don't like to pay royalties under licensing agreements. Licensing works in the pharmaceutical world. In semiconductors, small companies often have to win lawsuits before large companies will take out a license.
Then again, the company seems to understand these problems. The early adopters will probably not be established, top tier automakers. Instead, the first customers will probably be people who make vehicles – trucks, perhaps, or forklifts – who want to move into a new market.
Murray, who made his name designing high-end cars like the McLaren F1 supercar and the Mercedes SLR McLaren, is aiming at a different market with his mini-car designs. Murray said that he expects the T.25 to cost around £5,000 to £5,500, or $10,000 to $11,000.
Murray wouldn't give price ranges for the new T.26, except to say they would be "very market and customer dependent. The customer will come to us with their new market study, and say, this is the sales price we need for this market, and we work backward."
He's also aiming for a different niche than other small car makers like India's Tata Motors, which plans to sell its $2,500 Tata Nano in emerging nations where the streets are packed and people don't have much money.
Murray, on the other hand, is looking to Europe and Japan. Others designing small cars for the wealthier world include Commuter Cars, which makes the Tango, an electric two-seater with lots of power but a hefty $108,000 price tag at present, and Venture Vehicles, which is making the three-wheeled Venture One with a price target of $20,000 to $25,000.
Others are already on the road with their small cars. Norway's Think Global, which is selling its two-seater electric car called Think City in Norway and plans to start selling it in Denmark and Sweden early next year, has said it expects to begin sales in North America next year.
AS for GMD, it expects to have a T.25 prototype completed by February 2009. Murray wouldn't say how many passengers the T.25 prototype would be designed to carry, but did say it would be customizable to various customers' needs – "On the exact same chassis, you could have a van, a police vehicle, a pickup truck, whatever you want."
Murray's plan has convinced at least one observer. Autocar magazine awarded Gordon Murray Design its Idea of the Year award Monday for "looking to completely reinvent the cars that we buy and the way they are made," according to Chas Hallett, the magazine's editor.