While the wheels are falling off the United States car industry, some Swiss companies that make alternative vehicles say their prospects are looking up.
Mindset, a Lucerne-based firm, hopes to release the first Swiss-designed hybrid car within about 18 months. Another company, Numexia, based in canton Vaud, in January unveiled a prototype for an electric delivery truck.
Even demand for electric-power bicycles appears to be on the rise. A spokesman for Bern-based BikeTec says company sales have expanded so quickly for its "Flyer" electric bikes – 100 per cent growth for three consecutive years – that workers will quadruple production this summer by moving into a bigger factory.
"When we started a year-and-a-half ago we couldn't imagine the situation today," said Mindset's Paolo Tumminelli. "You'd think this is not a good time to be in this business."
"We definitely feel it," said Andy Baumgartner of BikeTec, which currently produces about 13,000 electric bikes that start at SFr3,000 ($2,600). "I think at times like this more people look at our bikes."
The turbulent economy has wreaked havoc on large US automakers such as Ford, which last week announced a $14.6 billion (SFr16.8 billion) loss for 2008 on slumping sales.
Others, such as Chrysler and General Motors, have had to go cap-in-hand to the US government for loans totalling $13.4 billion to stay afloat.
A new Mindset
But what is one industry's slump may prove to be another's boon.
Working from a boathouse on the shore of the Lake Lucerne in central Switzerland, engineers at Mindset have produced a car that runs almost entirely off a lithium-ion battery that balances efficiency with performance.
The car, also called Mindset, features a sleek, aerodynamic body set on narrow, oversized wheels. It can accelerate from zero to 100km/h in seven seconds, has a top speed of 140km/h and a range of up to 200 kilometres per charge. It costs about SFr4 at current electricity rates to "refuel".
"We've come to the point now where people are interested more and more in cars that aren't conventional," Tumminelli said. "We aren't producing a car that solves global warming – we wish it did – but it's a small contribution."
The Mindset is almost the exact opposite of other hybrid cars such as a Prius. Whereas that Toyota model features a combustion engine aided by an electric battery, the Mindset runs off an electric engine whose output can be boosted with a small combustion engine acting as a generator.
Tumminelli said the four-seat Mindset would sell for about SFr75,000 when available in 2010, but first the company needs investors to cover production costs for 50,000 vehicles during the next five years. That amounts to about SFr200 million, he said.
"We've had a very positive response so far," he said from Munich, where he had taken a drivable prototype on tour. "I think people are getting tired of cars that have been pretty much the same for the past 110 years."
Urban logistics vehicle
Commercial transport could also stand to benefit. On January 29 Numexia, an electric motor company based in Echallens in canton Vaud, introduced a prototype for what it dubs an "urban logistics vehicle propelled by electric power".
A delivery truck, the 3.5-tonne modified Renault Maxity, can reach 110km/h and go for about 100 kilometres powered only on an electric motor.
The company says the technology – batteries, an electric torque motor and an auxiliary generator – can be retrofitted into just about any standard urban delivery vehicle.
Although the batteries add significant weight, the truck can keep a payload similar to that of the original model, said chairman Jean-Marie Van Appelghem.
What's more, the batteries don't need to be plugged in to recharge. Rather, the company has developed a system that can restore depleted batteries by generating electricity with moving magnets.
Van Appelghem said several manufacturers were already interested in the technology.
"We think that we shall, with one or more of them, be able to start delivery of the first vehicles by 2010," he said.
swissinfo, Tim Neville
Under the hood
The Mindset vehicle was designed with specific performance standards in mind to not hinder efficiency. Engineers designed the car to be light with narrow tires to reduce rolling friction. For that reason, they had to limit the car's speed to 140km/h as narrow wheels become less stable at higher velocities. Spokesman Paolo Tumminelli said the car could actually do closer to 200km/h. It can also go up to 800 kilometres without a full recharge with an additional generator.
As the vehicle has no gearbox, the floor inside can be flat, which gives the car a roomier feel. The display is sleek and simple with one button that controls forward or reverse.
Tumminelli said Mindset hoped to secure SFr200 million to produce 10,000 cars a year for the next five years but added the company could opt for a smaller investment with a view to getting the car out more quickly in limited numbers. He said the car would not be at the annual car show in Geneva this year as it wouldn't be ready for purchase. Heuliez, a company in France that specialises in niche auto production, will build the Mindset.