Lessons in Stealth Communications: V-Vehicle Tries to Keep Technology Details Under Wraps

One problem with being a stealthy company is the difficulty in setting the record straight.

The News-Star of Monroe, LA, reported yesterday that V-Vehicle, the San Diego-based startup automaker building a factory in Northeastern Louisiana, is “apparently testing prototypes of its mystery car,” but that may be overstating the matter.

The newspaper quotes David Hitchcock, V-Vehicle’s director of Louisiana assembly operations, as saying, “Our product has entered the testing and validation stage. A lot of the testing and validation conducted so far has been in a virtual environment, but we’ve moved on to the physical testing phase.”

V-Vehicle has disclosed few details since June, when the startup founded by former Oracle executive Frank Verasano announced plans to a develop and build a “high-quality, environmentally friendly, and fuel-efficient car” in Monroe. The announcement attracted attention in part because V-Vehicle has raised at least $75 million in venture capital from investors that include Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Google Ventures, and maverick investor T. Boone Pickens.

But as I reported at the time, V-Vehicle provided no details about the car itself, such as what type of fuel it will use or why the startup describes it environmentally friendly. Verasano told reporters V-Vehicle is trying to be protective of many details because of potential competition. I contacted V-Vehicle spokesman Joe Fisher to confirm details of the news report, and we got into the verbal dance (one-two, sidestep, one-two) that often occurs between reporters and their sparring partners in public relations.

The bottom line is that Fisher would not confirm certain details of the Star-News report. For example, when I asked if V-Vehicle is testing multiple prototypes, or just one prototype, Fisher told me, “We haven’t commented yet on prototypes.” He added that “entering the testing and validation stage” does not refer to prototypes. When asked what it does refer to, Fisher said it means the startup has begun engineering on test vehicles. But he declined to define the meaning of a test vehicle, saying, “I’m not sure that we’re going to go beyond” what V-Vehicle has said in its official statements.

I also asked Fisher if he could confirm another detail from the News-Star story, that V-Vehicle’s car will be “a gasoline-powered vehicle that will get 40-plus miles per gallon and costs about $10,000.”

Fisher responded, “We don’t talk about the price of the car or the fuel system. That’s just not something we have commented on.”

Fisher was willing to discuss aspects of its pending application for $320 million in government loans under the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing program, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Energy. He confirmed that V-Vehicle has asked the DOE for a $70 million loan for engineering and a $250 manufacturing loan.

The state of Louisiana has pledged another $87 million through a state incentive package—providing V-Vehicle raises at least $350 million through other sources. Because V-Vehicle has raised about $75 million from its venture investors, Fisher says the federal loans (if approved) should carry the company over that threshold. Fisher says the company wants to provide more details, but intends to withhold additional information until the DOE acts on V-Vehicle’s federal loan application.

Until then, the only online source of information about V-Vehicle is on the Louisiana Economic Development website.

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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