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Detroit Auto Show: Think on Fast Track to Get EVs on the Road in 2010

DETROIT--There is a definite pattern of startup EV companies hiring industry veterans. I think it's actually a great idea, because the new automaker (usually with little auto experience) gains a wealth of in-the-trenches knowledge. And the hiree, often with 30 years in corporate service, gains a new-found freedom.

Keith Takasawa has been Think North America's new director of product development only since July, and I met him outside Cobo Hall in Detroit for a ride in the Think City. Think is the Norwegian electric carmaker that recently emerged from the European bankruptcy process with $47 million in new funding (and more than 30 percent ownership by Ener1, an Indiana-based automaker. The hard-hit city of Elkhart, Indiana is also the recently announced location for Think's North American manufacturing plant.

Think will start selling the City in the U.S. this year, initially offering cars made in Europe.

Takasawa, who started out as an engineer working on heavy trucks, spent 32 years at Ford (ironically, Think's owner from 1999 to 2002) and headed the Escape program "right through Job 1," he said. Working at Think, he said, "is a huge change. You don't have all the support you're used to at a big company, but you can make decisions very quickly and have them stick." As an executive at startup Coda Automotive told, me, "If you raise your hand, you'll find yourself with the job."

Takasawa told me that Think will be selling the relatively spartan City for less than $20,000, but that's EV speak. The price does not include the leased battery pack, and includes the $7,500 federal tax credit for EVs. Still, it's one of the most affordable EVs on the market--as well as one of the first on the market. And it will compete against entries such as the Chinese-made BYD E6, which will also be sold in the U.S. as early as this year. The E6 will also be very affordable, but it will be a race to get it through crash testing and onto dealer lots this year. BYD's cash infusion from Warren Buffett probably doesn't hurt.

It's not yet decided what kind of dealer network Think will have in the U.S., Takasawa said. "It could vary by region," he said. "We will do Internet marketing, but I suspect we will have some dealers as well."

Think is ambitious. Its Elkhart factory, which once produced windows for RVs, could produce 20,000 cars a year. Exactly how many it will sell depends on many factors, including size of available subsidies and the price of gas. That last one is a nailbiter for all EV companies.