Vancouver-built electric van looks to create buzz in Philippines

Pangea Motors looking for production site, possible in city

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

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A 16-passenger electric van built in Vancouver is headed to the Philippines today, the first of what backers hope will be thousands of locally produced public transportation vehicles headed to the crowded streets of Manila.

The Comet, designed and built by Pangea Motors in a nondescript building near downtown Vancouver, is viewed by its developers as a partial solution to the extreme air pollution in the congested city of 14 million residents. Pangea has orders from the Philippines for 200 Comets this year and expects that number to climb to 600 by the end of the year. Company CEO Michael Hippert sees the possibility for thousands of orders next year.

With that prospect in mind, the company is looking for a production site, most likely in either Vancouver or Clackamas, Ore., that Hippert says could employ hundreds by next year.

The vehicle, which made a brief publicity appearance on Vancouver streets near Esther Short Park on Monday morning, is the brainchild of Hippert and fellow electric vehicle industry veteran Ken Montler. They see the Philippines as a test site for a niche of urban transportation that makes sense for many of the world's highly congested cities.

"We believe this can be replicated anywhere in the world," said Montler, CEO of GET International, which is marketing the Comet for Pangea.

Hippert and Montler are two of three investors in Pangea, and they are the U.S. half of a joint partnership in GET International with Philippine investors. Both men were leaders in Porteon Electric Vehicles, which closed its doors after a deal to manufacture vehicles in St. Lucia collapsed. They launched the two new companies only about six months ago.

Social, financial ambitions

They have big ambitions for their venture's environmental, social, and financial potential. Manila's air pollution is among the world's most severe, Montler said, contributing to major respiratory problems for residents. The foul air from the city's approximately 55,000 diesel urban transport vehicles, known as jeepneys, reduces the life expectancy for jeepney drivers, he said. The Comet, they believe, will ease those problems.

Jeepney owners recognize the benefits that the Comet offers, Hippert said, and Philippine government officials are supporting their effort. The vehicles,which will cost around $12,000, have only about 400 parts compared to 3,000 parts for a gas-powered vehicle, reducing maintenance needs and vehicle down time. Electric power will reduce operational costs, and GET will work with local officials to establish designated transit routes to improve operational efficiency, Montler said.

In addition, Hippert and Montler have developed new financial streams for drivers, vehicle owners and their companies. Each vehicle is equipped with a video screen on the back wall, which could generate revenue from focused ad sales. Their long-term financial projects assume that the bulk of revenues will come from sales of ads that are targeted to the demographics of riders on individual routes.

The company also anticipates making money on commissions on prepaid fare cars and on fleet management services. Hippert said those revenues will be shared with vehicle owners and drivers,

The prototype vehicle is designed so that it can be built in easy-to-assemble components that can be shipped overseas for final assembly in the Philippines. That approach reduces costs for labor and shipping, while creating local jobs in the Philippines, Montler said.

For the local production, Hippert said the company will initially need 35,000 to 50,000 square feet, and that its needs could soon expand to 100,000 square feet. The company has been meeting with the Columbia River Economic Development Council in Clark County and with Clackamas County officials in Oregon, he said.

Bonnie Moore, CREDC's vice president of business growth and innovation, said she believes Pangea has found a solid market niche for electric vehicles. She said she has been actively searching for a site that would work for the company. "I just need to find an empty, and not too decrepit, building," she said.

But she acknowledged that Oregon and Clackamas County often have the ability to offer more incentives than Clark

"I think that startups need to go where the funding is, in their first seven years," she said.