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As General Electric (NYSE: GE ) and NRG Energy are grabbing headlines for buying electric cars and building electric-vehicle infrastructure, respectively, I can't help thinking we're focusing on the wrong type of electric vehicles in the media. We hear about General Motors' (NYSE: GM ) Chevy Volt, Nissan's Leaf, and, of course, the Tesla Motors (Nasdaq: TSLA ) Roadster, but we get no news on the practical applications that are driving the few profitable (or nearly profitable) companies in the industry.
Headlines are nice, but as an investor, I'm more concerned about where I may be able to profit from this trend. GM and Nissan both expect to sell their electrics at a loss (at first), and Tesla is burning money trying to get the Model S launched -- so where is the profit going to come from?
Advanced Battery Technology (Nasdaq: ABAT ) has had success building its battery technology into scooters that are selling like hotcakes. Scooters make almost too much sense as an electric vehicle. They're small and lightweight and never travel long distances -- at least I wouldn't drive one very far. We aren't talking about a huge market, but it makes more sense in a lot of ways than having an electric family sedan.
The challenge would be the U.S. market, which has never had great tolerance for tiny vehicles such as scooters. But I think a cool electric motorcycle would sell in reasonable volumes if a little design work went into them. Can we get Tesla on this, please?
I’m not expecting Harley-Davidson owners to run out and buy an electric motorcycle, but as a sport-bike guy, I could handle doing away with its annoying zing for the silent ride of an electric. Zero Motorcycles is the closest thing we have right now to a stylish electric bike, but the smaller electric vehicles could use a little more love from both the industry and the media.
Going small has made some progress, but going bigger is gaining momentum in the U.S., and investors are starting to see progress. We've seen Valance Technology (Nasdaq: VLNC ) make inroads in the commercial market recently with customer Smith Electric. Frito-Lay and Staples are purchasing a combined 217 vehicles for local distribution, and the government is considering Smith for a 100-vehicle fleet as well.
Commercial electric vehicles make more business sense than passenger electric vehicles do, because defined routes and schedules allow for charging time. Commercial drivers also don't take vehicles on the occasional cross-country road trip, a major deterrent for electric vehicles right now.
And how long will it be until FedEx or UPS (NYSE: UPS ) makes a big move into electric vehicles? They both have the infrastructure and delivery schedule to make it work, maybe better than anyone else. Both are testing electric vehicles, but we've seen no huge orders such as what we've seen from GE.
If we take this a step further, I don't see why semi-trucks can't be at least partially battery-powered as well. A123 Systems (Nasdaq: AONE ) and Ener1 are building grid-scale battery systems, so scale doesn't seem to be an issue. The size and weight of the pack in the truck would be an issue, but the concept semis I've seen would make more business sense than most of the concept electric cars.
Plus, building the infrastructure wouldn't be nearly as difficult as it will be for passenger cars. Build charging stations on major highways every 100 miles, and when drivers are sleeping, they can get a full charge for the road. That may be a little bit of wishful thinking, but the payback for a truck driving tens of thousands of miles a year has to be faster than for a city commuter.
The bottom line
Whether you're looking big or small, the electric-vehicle market has more going on beyond just the cars getting all the headlines. Commercial trucks and scooters may not be as exciting, but they're driving Advanced Battery Technologies profit and pushing Valence closer to profitability than any of its U.S. battery rivals. That's something to consider when you're looking at investing in the electric-vehicle revolution.
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