SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – One of Silicon Valley's most prominent venture capital firms unveiled plans on Monday to put as many as 50,000 electric cars on American roads beginning late next year.
The announcement of a new joint venture by Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which has in the past backed Internet companies such as Google Inc and Amazon.com Inc, could make the famed tech region south of San Francisco a mecca for plug-in cars as well.
To be based in Menlo Park, California, Think North America will bring together Kleiner with clean technology-focused venture capital firm RockPort Capital Management and Think Global, a Norwegian electric car maker.
“In a couple of years, we hope to be selling 30, 40, 50,000 cars per year,” said Ray Lane, a Kleiner managing partner and chairman of Think North America.
The joint venture's first product will be Think City, an emission-free, 95 percent recyclable car with a maximum speed of 65 miles an hour. Plans call for a U.S. launch next year.
Lane said he expects the Think City, which will be priced under $25,000, to compete with Toyota Motor Corp's popular Prius hybrid.
Think City would be a low-end rival to Tesla Motors' high-profile Roadster, the all-electric luxury sports car also made in Silicon Valley that began regular production last month after several delays. More than 1,000 customers have ordered the $100,000 Roadsters, according to the company.
Tesla has said it plans to gradually ramp up production, making more than 100 Roadsters a month by early next year.
Now made in Norway, Think City — about the size of a Toyota Yaris or Honda Fit — runs on sodium or lithium batteries and can travel up to 110 miles on one charge.
“This is not a toy, this is a serious car that is able to be mass-produced and sold,” said RockPort general managing partner Wilber James.
The two-seater has an option to add two more seats for children up to 14 years of age, Think Global Chief Executive Jan-Olaf Willums said.
The company is negotiating with U.S. utility companies to set up fueling stations to charge the cars, following similar models in Europe, executives said without disclosing details.
Think City's battery now takes about three hours to recharge if plugged in daily, or eight hours if the battery is drained.
Battery-operated vehicles have so far remained a niche product after California reversed a zero-emission vehicle mandate from the 1990s, following which major car makers scrapped experimental programs such as General Motors Corp's EV1. Investors are hoping high gas prices and growing environmental consciousness could finally usher in a new era for electric cars.
California, a primary electric car market, was recently forced to cut the number of zero-emission vehicles required between 2012 and 2014 by 70 percent to 7,500, a signal that technology has lagged hopes in the largest U.S. car market.
GM wants to introduce a plug-in hybrid, the Chevrolet Volt, by the end of 2010.
Venture capitalists have been investing heavily in the “cleantech” sector of alternative energy, transportation, construction, recycling and other technologies.
Kleiner and RockPort have already invested in Think Global, and each will hold 25 percent of the new company, James told a news conference.
Kleiner has invested in three companies making clean cars, including Fisker Automotive, which makes a sporty, plug-in hybrid. Lane declined to disclose the third investment.
Tesla has financing from various venture capital firms, including Draper Fisher Jurvetson.
By Anupreeta Das
(Editing by Adam Tanner and Carol Bishopric)