Bob Albertson, a 72-year-old serial inventor, thinks he's created something that will revolutionize the auto industry.
At his home just south of this tiny city on the Mississippi River, Albertson built a fully electric Ford Ranger pickup truck that he's 99 percent certain Ford Motor Co. will want to mass-produce.
"They'd be nuts not to," said the man whose inventions include the pulsating shower massager, the Mr. Coffee coffee maker and the eight-track tape player -- which he sold to Bill Lear of Learjet. His nearly finished electric pickup can go 100 miles -- better than many electric prototypes from the auto industry -- before it needs to recharge for five hours.
With car manufacturers around the world scrambling to produce the first successful mass-produced all-electric vehicle, the electric Ranger Albertson has spent the past two years working on might be just in time.
The Obama administration has already toughened fuel economy regulations for automakers, and the Department of Energy has set aside a $25 billion fund specifically for the development of new fuel-efficient vehicles.
Last week Ford received a $5.9 billion loan from the fund to help transform plants in five Midwestern states with plans to manufacture hybrids and electric vehicles. The loan is unrelated to the bailout funds given to Chrysler Group LLC and General Motors Corp.
The Dearborn, Mich.-based automaker is planning to release two new fully electric vehicles in the next two years.
Tesla Motors Inc. and Nissan Motors Co. also received similar government loans Tuesday for $465 million and $1.6 billion, respectively. Tesla already makes a high-performance electric roadster that can travel 244 miles on a single charge and costs more than $100,000. Nissan plans to release an electric car in 2010, the same year GM plans to release its highly anticipated Chevy Volt. General Motors hopes the Volt, designed to get 40 miles on an electric charge before supplemental power kicks in, will become a key component in its resurgence as America's largest car company.
"It's a significant investment for us," Chevy spokesman Dave Darovitz said. "The Volt is one of the most advanced vehicles we've ever put out."
Electric vehicles have been around almost as long as cars themselves. But once Henry Ford was able to mass-produce the internal combustion gasoline engine, and the discovery of Texas crude oil dropped gas prices, electric vehicles with limited range pretty much put themselves out of commission.
A push from California in the 1990s brought new life to the electric car concept -- the state eventually passed a mandate requiring 2 percent of vehicles sold in the state to be emission-free. GM produced the EV1 and other automakers also had electric vehicles, but after the California mandate was repeatedly scaled back, they have been little more than golf carts in high-end communities.
Ford even manufactured an electric Ranger in the late '90s, but halted production of the trucks after only a few years, eventually recalling them for reported performance problems. The company ended up scrapping almost all of the models.
But with growing concern over global warming and enough American drivers apparently interested in fuel efficiency for the first time in 40 years, many predict plug-in electric vehicles will become mainstream in the near future.
An 'indestructible' transmission
Albertson lives with his wife in an old converted restaurant decorated with newspaper clippings and prototypes of his previous inventions, which also include what has become the trolling motor, and the electric weedeater.
The man who describes himself as a "self-taught automotive engineer," has more than 200 patents to his name and has sold or licensed 47 products.
"I try to do things inexpensively and practically," he said while fiddling with a pair of magnets at his dining room table.
The key to Albertson's latest creation is the transmission, which doesn't run on fluids, but rather uses high-powered magnets. He says the transmission is "indestructible."
The truck is powered by six deep-cycle car batteries that are hooked up to a 100-horsepower electric motor, and tops out at 80 miles per hour. The truck uses absolutely no gasoline -- Albertson insists on calling the truck's gas pedal an accelerator.
But Albertson didn't just set out to build an electric vehicle. His aim was to save the Ford plant in St. Paul, which builds Ford's small Ranger pickup truck. Both the plant and the vehicle are on the chopping block, with the more than 80-year-old facility on the Mississippi River scheduled to close in 2011. The plant employs about 1,000 workers.
He says Ford could produce his vehicle at the St. Paul plant and sell it brand-new for about $22,000, cheaper than most hybrid vehicles on the market.
Albertson showed his truck off at the State Fair last summer, but he's still working on finishing touches. He thinks it will be completely finished in less than two months, and the tentative plan is to have Ford look at the prototype by the end of this summer. No meeting is currently booked, though.
Albertson has also been contacting Ford dealers about selling transmission kits that Ranger owners could use to convert their gas pickups to electric by having their engines swapped out at the dealership. He said several dealers have already claimed to be interested in the kits, which he estimates would sell for $12,900.
Albertson got started on the pickup after the Auto Workers of Minnesota -- a nonprofit group comprised of about 17 members dedicated to saving the Ford plant -- bought him a Ranger, hoping he would be able to convert it.
The state kicked in a $150,000 grant, half of which went to the development of Albertson's new electric Ranger.
"What he has put together to this point is really some of the best technology out there," said Gary Muenzhuber, who helped start Auto Workers of Minnesota.
Many have tried to save the plant before. Since 2005, when the Ranger's sales fell as a redesigned F-150 became more popular, politicians from around the state, including Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Republican Norm Coleman and St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, have been trying to persuade Ford to keep the plant running.
Currently, there is a bill waiting in the Legislature that would require local and state governments to have at least a 25 percent electrical vehicle fleet by 2015.
Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, who co-authored the bill, said if the legislation passes, the state would end up buying up to 5,000 of the electric Rangers, assuming Ford decides to play ball.
"All the pieces are there; all that's left is to get Ford to work with us," Rukavina said.
Ford, for its part, says it has no plans to resurrect any model of the electric Ranger, said spokeswoman Jennifer Moore. Minnesota was not one of the five states mentioned for getting a retooled auto plant with the federal loans.
Still, Albertson and the Auto Workers of Minnesota hope the legislation will push Ford to consider the electric truck.
"[Ford] is understandably a little skeptical," said Mike Freeman, Hennepin County attorney and chairman of the auto workers group. "Everyone says they have great ideas."
Freeman agreed to chair the group because he's friends with some of its members. He said it has nothing to do with his responsibilities as county attorney.
"It's a commendable thing that retired workers are trying to help their brothers and sisters while they could just go off fishing," he said. "If I can't stop to help some friends with this, then what the hell kind of a friend am I?"
Jim Reinitz, vice president of the United Auto Workers 879 and executive director of the Auto Workers of Minnesota, isn't just fighting to save his friends' jobs, he's also fighting for his own. Reinitz has worked at the Ford plant in St. Paul since 1997 and said the local union fully supports Albertson's work.
"Right now a lot of people are looking to Washington [D.C.] and Detroit for solutions. I think we need to start looking locally," Reinitz said.
Alex Robinson • 612-673-7405