Local electric vehicle gets boost from Obama

Pangea, which makes the Comet, is based in Vancouver

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian Business Editor

Published:

 

President Barack Obama boards a Comet, an electric bus made in Vancouver for Manila public transportation, on his visit to the Philippines

Pangea Motors’ rapid, improbable climb from unknown startup operating out of an industrial garage in Vancouver to a potential player in reducing urban congestion and air pollution in the world’s major cities reached new heights this week, when President Barack Obama took a 14-minute look at one of the company’s prototype buses in the Philippines.

On Monday, Obama greeted Ken Montler, CEO of Pangea’s affiliate firm Global Electric Transportation, and then climbed aboard the Pangea bus that awaited the president in a tent outside his Manila hotel. A YouTube video shows Obama, jacket perched over his shoulder, greeting Montler and boarding the bus for a quick look and a chat with local officials.

The prototype Comet — short for City Optimized Managed Electric Transport — is the first of thousands that Pangea is building to replace the aging, heavily polluting Jeepney vehicles that clog the city streets. Some 50,000 Jeepneys, first introduced by Americans in World War II, provide up to 40 percent of the city’s transportation.

Montler, back in Vancouver on Thursday after his memorable meeting with the president, recalled telling Obama: “You’re here to help us launch the company.” The president responded, he recalled, “That’s why I’m here.”

It’s the sort of rush that few business owners experience, but one that seems to fit the trajectory of a company that sees a worldwide urban market for its 16-passenger, zero-emission electric minibuses. Manila is just the first stop for Vancouver-based Pangea and GET, a Philippine-based company that is providing software and operational expertise for the venture.

The partnership will roll out the first 30 Comet vehicles this month, Montler said. Government leaders hope the company will be able to deliver at least 7,000 of the vehicles by 2015 on a path to replacing Jeepneys in about three years, in what is being billed as the world’s largest deployment of a managed system of e-vehicles.

The venture could generate jobs for Clark County. Pangea is looking for a local manufacturing site for the vehicles, and company officials have expressed a preference for a Clark County site. But Clackamas County, Ore., last year offered incentives for the company to establish manufacturing there, and Montler said the company hasn’t landed a site. The U.S. production will be the first step in a two-step manufacturing operation, with components to be shipped to the Philippines for final production in a 70,000-square-foot manufacturing plant there.

Pangea’s low-cost electric bus has won support from government leaders and a powerful association of Jeepney drivers in the Philippines, Montler said.

“The problem over there is so evident to everyone, they all want to get it fixed,” he said. “Every hurdle we had to overcome has been faster and easier to overcome than we expected.”

Each of the Comets will replace two of the aging, heavy Jeepneys, largely due to establishment of service routes that eliminate some of the operational inefficiencies of the existing transport system, Montler said. But drivers won’t lose jobs: many will have to work only eight hours rather than 16 but will earn about the same income. They’ll also have medical benefits for the first time, Montler said.

While Pangea has developed and is manufacturing the vehicles, which cost about $40,000 apiece, Global Electric Transportation is providing software as well as fleet management and fare collection services. GET is marketing electronic advertising on board the buses as a way to keep fares low and to provide drivers with a decent wage. It also has decided to embrace Jeepney art, by creating murals on the Comets, which also will have advertising messages, Montler said.

In addition to selecting a U.S. manufacturing site, Montler is trying to raise $5 million from investors interested in an equity stake in the venture. He’s found interest from local financiers who want to invest in a project that delivers social and environmental benefits.

Government officials around the world are also wanting to find out more about the Comet, he said. The company has heard from officials in China, Bali, Indonesia, and Central and South America, he said. Although tigher U.S. vehicle standards raise issues about how the buses might be used in this country, Montler hopes that someday they would fill a niche here.

Obama’s implicit endorsement will certainly help raise the Comet’s profile, he said. Just last fall, Montler said, “we had to prove ourselves and establish legitimacy. Now it’s a lot easier to tell the story.”

Editor’s note: This story has been modified with a correction. The Comet system is the world’s largest deployment of a managed system of e-vehicles.

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