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Mark Frohnmayer builds a Utopian empire in Eugene

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Articles - December 2010
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Above: Frohnmayer in Arcimoto's Version 4 car, which TV star Nathan Fillion calls "my spaceship." Below: The Pulse was Arcimoto's Version 3, a prototype focused on body fabrication.
Frohnmayer’s guiding principle is to think globally, act locally. “Looking at transportation, or green building, or energy efficiency, or whatever,” he says, “these are things that we can do anywhere, and we should probably do it everywhere rather than building a super-concentrated manufacturing operation.”

Keeping costs down means not reinventing the wheel — not even the parts that make the wheels turn. The company uses standard automotive parts for the bulk of the drive train. The current Arcimoto vehicle uses lead-acid batteries rather than the higher-tech, and far more expensive, lithium-ion batteries that cars like the Tesla Roadster use. Lead-acid batteries have been around for a century, they’re a proven technology, and they’re inexpensive. All of these aspects are a benefit for a startup company and a consumer wary of electric cars. It’s easy enough to upgrade the battery pack later, when the price comes down or the consumer needs more range.

Arcimoto uses parts that are already in mass production. “The high-volume, highly machined, highly tooled components are off the shelf,” says Frohnmayer. “Custom elements like the frame use low-cost, low-volume manufacturing.” So an interested EV startup in, say, Philadelphia is welcome to come to Eugene for a blueprint and training on how to build an Arcimoto vehicle on the East Coast and pay a royalty to Arcimoto for the privilege. “Rather than a company saying, ‘We’re going to go reinvent all that stuff,’ we can say, ‘Why don’t you just license all that undercarriage stuff from us and put the products out on the road that match your locale better?”’

Frohnmayer isn’t the only one thinking this way. Jay Rogers, CEO of Local Motors in Chandler, Ariz., founded his automotive startup in 2007 with the same idea of designing and building cars for a specific locale. In Local Motors’ case, the car is gasoline-powered and built by the buyer himself in what the company calls a microfactory. Rogers says of Frohnmayer: “Anybody who’s a vehicle pioneer, I applaud, because there is not one right answer.” Rogers could even see licensing Arcimoto’s underpinnings to answer a niche Local Motors might want to fill at one of its future microfactories.

There are lots of ways to work together in this new business sector, and Frohnmayer is open to new ideas. “It could simply be a preferred partnership arrangement where we’re sharing costs on the volume. We could add our volumes together when we’re sourcing and making orders.” A new coalition, Drive Oregon, was formed in 2009 by the Portland Development Commission in conjunction with Business Oregon, the state’s economic development agency. It brings together electric vehicle-related businesses in the state, including Arcimoto (Frohnmayer is on the steering committee), motorcycle manufacturer Brammo of Ashland and charger manufacturer Shorepower Technologies in Portland, to push the growth of the EV industry in Oregon.

Members of Drive Oregon are also working together to train the workforce needed for the technologies and compete as a unit for federal funding.

“The bulk of Arcimoto’s funding has come from me,” Frohnmayer says. “That funding stream has run its course. I’m basically totally out of cash.” Arcimoto has so far raised $2 million, and it recently won $30,000 in cash and in-kind services in the regional CleanTech Open competition. This prize puts it in line for the $250,000 national award.

Arcimoto has also used non-traditional sources coupled with star power to get a little extra cash. Nathan Fillion, star of ABC’s Castle and sci-fi cult favorite Firefly, went through the same process this past summer as Frohnmayer did in 2007. He, too, was looking for a fun electric vehicle to get him around Los Angeles without that “I’m gonna die” feeling when he found images of the Arcimoto Pulse, the company’s third prototype, online.

Fillion visited Arcimoto HQ in August and mentioned to Frohnmayer that actress Alyssa Milano had just raised several thousand dollars for charity through Twitter. Why not give it a try? Within a few days, Arcimoto had put up its Angel Wings donation page, and Fillion had pledged a $5,000 matching donation. “We’ve raised $13,000,” Frohnmayer says. “On average, people are donating $14.”

It reminds Frohnmayer of the despair he felt after exiting Garage Games. “This is a way that people can collectively say, ‘I can support an idea I believe in, and it’s a meaningful idea.”’

But it is an idea that will take some getting used to. People have been driving gasoline-powered cars for a hundred years. Electric cars have been around just as long, but 2011 is the year these alternative-fuel vehicles are poised for prime time. “What we’re seeing is the beginning of a brand-new market,” Frohnmayer says, one where the legacy of Eugene’s passion for sustainability can filter through a computer engineer with a vision to save the world.


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