Autos

Could an ATV Company Be Building the Next Big Electric Car?

Bay Area Plans Major Expansion Of Electric Vehicle Charging Stations
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Polaris Industries has been manufacturing snowmobiles and all terrain vehicles for years, and in the minds of most Americans, that’s all it does. There will probably always be a market for powersports vehicles, but they’re usually used by their owners for utility or recreational purposes. Outside of a few extremely rural areas like the Alaskan bush, they’re definitely not people’s primary forms of transportation.

What if Polaris is making moves to become a major transportation company, though? It might sound like a wild conspiracy theory, but it’s not exactly as crazy as it sounds.

When we look at a few important trends in the United States, we see people continuing to move to urban areas. In 25 years or so, it wouldn’t be that surprising to see the vast majority of Americans living in some sort of city. Not only is city travel already different than rural or suburban travel, increasing the number of people who live in cities will very likely make transportation even more complicated.

While ride sharing, public transportation, and cycling all get a lot of attention for being potential solutions to urban congestion, one of the best ways to get around a city is on a motorcycle. They’re inexpensive, fuel-efficient, and in some cities, they can legally lane split like bicycles.

Harley-Davidson may dominate the U.S. motorcycle market for now, but Polaris’ two motorcycle brands, Indian and Victory, are gaining both market share and strong reviews. In Consumer Reports’ most recent Motorcycle Ownership Survey, Victory scored top marks for both comfort and owner satisfaction.

Polaris isn’t just content to conquest traditional motorcycle sales, though. Electric motorcycles are perfect for city duty, and instead of attempting to develop its own like Harley-Davidson did, it bought struggling electric motorcycle company Brammo. Very soon, you can expect an electric motorcycle to be unveiled, probably under the Victory nameplate.

Zero Motorcycles has done a lot to bring down the cost of its electric bikes and is probably the most popular electric option for riders looking to leave gasoline behind. But Polaris has a much larger dealership network, and being the first major motorcycle company to market with a production electric bike would give it a huge advantage in the space. Before you know it, you could be seeing electric Victories all over your city.

2014_Empulse-R
Source: Brammo

Buying Brammo came with a bigger advantage than simply gaining access to its motorcycles. Brammo also had lithium-ion battery technology that Polaris now owns. You’ll see lithium-ion batteries on Victory’s electric motorcycle, but Polaris also needed that technology to continue developing its other electric vehicles that currently run on more primitive lead-acid batteries.

A few years ago, Polaris bought Global Electric Motorcars, a company that manufactures what are known as Neighborhood Electric Vehicles. Essentially, they’re nicer golf carts that usually have a top speed of 25 or 35 miles per hour. They’re perfect for university campuses, golf course communities, and beach towns, but while they’re fairly inexpensive, they’re don’t have the range or the features to compete with the Nissan Leaf, much less the Tesla Model S.

What if GEM sold an inexpensive electric car with doors and the features you’d expect from a gasoline-powered car, though? What if it was priced to undercut other electric cars like the Nissan Leaf, and especially the BMW i3? It would be a great way to get around town, carry multiple people, and stay more protected from the elements than you would on a motorcycle. For a lot of families in the city, that would probably be a pretty tempting option.

In order to produce such a vehicle, Polaris would need to have a large, modern manufacturing facility available to build it in. It’s not necessarily undeniable proof, but Polaris is currently building exactly that sort of facility in Huntsville, Alabama. The 600,000 square-foot facility will employ at least 1,700 people and could eventually provide as many as 2,000 jobs.

If Polaris wanted to use the lithium-ion battery technology it got from Brammo to design a low-cost electric car, that would be the kind of facility to build it in. It probably wouldn’t be very popular in rural areas, but it wouldn’t need to be. Millions of people already live in cities or close enough to them to easily support such a car.

It would also be the perfect vehicle for car sharing programs like Zipcar to buy in droves. After all, people who only need to use a car for a few hours aren’t going to care about the fact that it doesn’t have a leather interior or a 600 mile range. They would, however, appreciate how much lower the hourly rental rate would be. In fact, Polaris could even take a page out of Ford’s book and launch its own car sharing service.

Obviously this is all speculation for now, and nothing has been confirmed yet, but Polaris is definitely making moves to diversify its product range and invest in new technology. If it really does produce an electric car that’s more advanced than the NEVs it currently sells, and if that car catches on with city residents, Polaris could legitimately end up becoming a major disruptor in the car market. At a lower price point, it might even end up bigger than Tesla.

Check out Autos Cheat Sheet on Facebook and Tumblr
Follow Collin on Twitter @CS_CollinW