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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 5/26/10

Tesla - Toyota - NUMMI: The Electric Car Reborn?

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So too, as it happened, were his connections with Tesla Motors, one of the best-publicized start-up companies of the new "Green Tech" movement. Soon after being elected Treasurer, Lockyer discovered that he had the statutory authority to give a sales tax exemption to California companies buying manufacturing equipment that would be clearly beneficial to the environment. He offered that exemption to Tesla - a relative pittance in the grand scheme of multi-billion State revenues - just as the company was seriously thinking of leaving California to cut costs. Governor Schwarzenegger was on hand two years ago to announce, with his usual fanfare, that the company had decided to stay. He again found the limelight to which he is so accustomed when Toyota and Tesla joined hands last week.

The handshake wasn't entirely startling, considering that Tesla has already been working with Germany's Daimler to produce battery packs and chargers for an electric vehicle. Tesla, while it still had some of the earmarks of a cottage industry start-up, had thus scratched the surface of the automotive big time. Sooner or later, it was a good bet that one of the auto giants would discover all that the little company had to offer - innovation and style - in setting the stage for electric vehicle mass production.

But why Toyota, and why now? The media found a human interest story in the personal rapport of Akio Toyoda with Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk. Few connected the dots from Tesla to the unhappy fate of NUMMI, which Lockyer had brought to the attention of the public, appointing a blue-ribbon commission that calculated a billion-dollar cost to the California economy of shutting down the plant. Commission members even traveled to Tokyo to plead with the company to reconsider its decision. Given that Toyota, at that very moment, was being bludgeoned in the media for alleged mechanical faults, there seemed some faint hope that NUMMI could be saved. But Toyota was unwilling to maintain a huge plant, even one with a long record of excellence, without an American partner. The appeal by Lockyer's commissioners apparently fell on deaf ears.

But, maybe, somewhere along the line, a little thought was planted in the back of someone's mind: Corporate giant with PR problems weds well-regarded, flashy start-up in need of big capital, to conceive a new and exciting product in a shuttered physical plant, ready-made for future expansion.

Hmmm... A pipe-dream? Maybe not to Lockyer, linked as he was to all three elements of the potential troika. To what extent he may have helped broker the deal is not on the public record. But Tesla, on the verge of building its own small production plant in southern California, suddenly switched gears and settled on reopening the giant NUMMI (in Mr. Lockyer's neighborhood), that would have been far beyond its reach without Toyota cash and clout.

There was general acclaim and rejoicing when Schwarzenegger Mc-ed the joint announcement by the two companies. As press cameras clicked, Lockyer wasn't in the picture.

How much private satisfaction he can take from the deal depends on whether it turns out to be a truly historic development.

Tesla has been planning for some time to move past its beautifully-styled $100,000 sports car to produce a sedan, less pricey yet still beyond Main Street pocket books. By proving that electric cars don't have to be ugly, it would broaden the appeal of a type of vehicle that hasn't yet captured the imagination of the American consumer. If and when that should happen, Toyota deep pockets and know-how for mass production and marketing could see NUMMI humming again, restored to full capacity.

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R.H. Smith Social Media Pages: Facebook page url on login Profile not filled in       Twitter page url on login Profile not filled in       Linkedin page url on login Profile not filled in       Instagram page url on login Profile not filled in

Smith is an historian and public policy consultant.

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