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Who is Kleiner Perkins' New Electric Car Company?

Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers is one of the most renowned venture outfits in the world, so when they make a new investment, it's usually worth a look. On Friday, Greentech Media reported that Kleiner Perkins has put money into an electric or hybrid car manufacturer, making it a doubly interesting investment. Just one problem -- the firm isn't saying who. The only clue is that it's the polar opposite of Fisker Motors, a Kleiner Perkins company that prices its electric cars for the rich.

The investment is also notable because the past few years have seen big companies like General Motors, Honda and Toyota stepping up. While there have been dozens of startups (I counted 30 early in 2008), most don't appear to have much hope. There are only a handful with any promise, Tesla Motors being the most famous.

One possibility is that the Kleiner Perkins partner who mentioned the investment, Trae Vassalo, could have been referring to a doubling-down of a previous investment in Norway's Think, which plans to export small European electrics to the United States.

Greentech Media doesn't think that's likely, though, suggesting instead Bright Automotive and Reva. Bright got some press several weeks back when it took the wraps off a new vehicle in front of lawmakers in Washington, D.C., and it has been working to bring in money. But it's planning on making small delivery vehicles, while it sounds like Kleiner's investment is aimed at the consumer market. So I'd tend to rule that one out myself.

Reva, on the other hand, is an interesting possibility. It's an Indian company, and Kleiner Perkins has been dipping its toes into that country over the past couple of years. And Reva certainly hopes to make its cars cheap, at well under $20,000. But again, this company ultimately seems unlikely. For one, its cars probably won't pass Western safety standards, so a Think-style export option won't be available. And there are easier ways to make money in India than betting on a car that will still be too pricey for most.

Another possibility, Miles Electric, has been ruled out by Kleiner Perkins, according to Earth2Tech. So who is it? If I were a betting man, I'd put some money on there being a dark horse -- a company that, like Bright was until recently, isn't known. But I can also think of three more possibilities. Here they are, from least to most likely:

  • Zenn Motors -- Zenn is an investor alongside Kleiner Perkins in EEstor, which is quietly making ultracapacitors that it thinks will compete favorably with lithium-ion batteries. EEstor recently announced a breakthrough, which could mean Zenn is on its way to releasing a new vehicle. But EEstor is late delivering its product, and some think both it and Zenn are a joke. Also, Zenn would likely have to disclose a Kleiner Perkins investment publicly at some point, as it's a traded company.
  • Aptera Motors -- Aptera certainly doesn't toe the line, having chosen a bizarre three-wheeled design for its vehicles. But it's approaching production, and its cars are certainly a heck of a lot cheaper than Fisker's. However, Aptera already has the backing of Google.org, Idealab and others.
  • Gordon Murray -- My personal favorite, Gordon Murray is an English company that is working on a car chassis design that will be smaller, lighter and cheaper than the standard. That doesn't sound exciting, until you realize that weight factors in hugely to fuel efficiency and battery range. CBC has written more about Gordon Murray.
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