Waitaminnit—San Diego is the Headquarters of America’s Latest Green Auto Startup?

6/22/09Follow @bvbigelow

When Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal announced that a startup automaker based in San Diego will build a new line of fuel-efficient cars in Monroe, LA, nobody was more surprised than some folks at Cleantech San Diego.

The V-Vehicle Company, founded in 2006 by former Oracle executive Frank Varasano, says it “will produce a high-quality, environmentally friendly, and fuel-efficient car for the U.S. market.” But where did this secretive company come from? Why is it based in San Diego? And how green is V-Vehicle? The company provided no details about the car itself, such as what type of fuel it will use or specifically why it is environmentally friendly.

“We’re trying to be protective of the things we need to be (because of potential competition),” Varasano told reporters at the briefing in Monroe, LA. The only other tidbit disclosed is that Tom Motano, who’s credited with designing Mazda’s MX-5 Miata, is leading the V-Vehicle design team.

The news naturally piqued the curiosity of some board members at CleanTech San Diego, a non-profit industry group formed to accelerate the region’s legions of green technology and alternative energy companies. One CleanTech San Diego board member told me he wonders what the ‘V’ in V-Vehicle stands for: V-8? Victory? Virtual? Vaporware?

“Most people think it stands for Varasano,” says Joe Fisher, a spokesman for the company. (Before his stint at Oracle, V-Vehicle’s founding CEO was an engineering and manufacturing practice leader at Booz Allen Hamilton. Varasano earned his M.B.A. from Harvard, and served aboard the nuclear submarine Patrick Henry after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy.) But Fisher says the V instead refers to “value.”

V-Vehicle Headquarters

V-Vehicle Headquarters

Another question: Why is V-Vehicle’s headquarters in San Diego? A little online research shows V-Vehicle’s corporate headquarters is on 16th street, just east of the Padres’ new baseball stadium downtown. But there’s not much to see at the refurbished gray two-story building, with its Art Deco-inspired façade. Fisher says that’s easy to explain: V-Vehicle is based in San Diego because Varasano lives here.

Among other tantalizing facts observers are pondering is that V-Vehicle’s investors include the famed Silicon Valley venture firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which also has invested in Fisker Automotive, the Irvine, CA, company developing the $80,000 Fisker Karma, a plug-in hybrid electric luxury car. Kleiner managing partner and former Oracle President Ray Lane, who also serves on the boards at Fisker and electric carmaker Th!nk North America, is chairman of V-Vehicle’s board.

Perhaps because of Kleiner Perkins’ backing, at least one press account assumed the V-Vehicle is an electric car. But the investors also include Texas energy maverick T. Boone Pickens, who has called for a nationwide shift to natural gas as a transportation fuel as part of his Pickens Energy Plan. Perhaps V-Vehicle will instead be powered by natural gas?

Lane and Kleiner managing partner John Doerr reportedly have raised $100 million to fund the company so far. Aside from Pickens, the group of private investors includes James Davison, a Ruston, LA, trucking magnate who owns the shuttered automotive headlamp manufacturing plant in Northeastern Louisiana that V-Vehicle plans to expand and renovate, with construction set to begin later this year.

Louisiana Gov. Jindal says the state provided about $67 million in incentives, which includes $12 million in workforce training. V-Vehicle is also applying for engineering and manufacturing loans under the U.S. Department of Energy’s $25 billion Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing Loan Program, which Congress established in 2007 to spur innovation in automobile technology. Lane told reporters the company’s goal is to raise $400 million to $500 million in capital through equity and loans.

In the end, V-Vehicle’s greenness may be less relevant than the fact that the San Diego-based automaker is unencumbered by the institutional baggage, including the workforce pension and healthcare commitments, carried by the Big Three U.S. automakers. V-Vehicle’s chairman Lane alluded to that in a statement, saying, “The thing that excites me the most about V-Vehicle Company is that it is a holistic change. We’re thinking about, from beginning to end, how to reconstruct a car company. The V-Vehicle Company has the opportunity to change the automotive business in the United States.”

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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