Electric vehicle startup Canoo recently moved its headquarters from Austin, Texas, to Northwest Arkansas, and soon will begin rolling out its radical EVs from new manufacturing plants in Bentonville and nearby Pryor, Okla. A research-and-development facility also is planned for Northwest Arkansas.
All this is part of what CEO Tony Aquila calls the transformation of U.S. 412 in Arkansas and Oklahoma into a “center of electric vehicle research, development and manufacturing power.”
The company, which still maintains offices in Texas and California, expects the Arkansas manufacturing facility to be operational later this year and support 545 new jobs. The Oklahoma plant is expected to be up and running in 2023.
The Future Is Now
Imagine a car that can be adapted with interchangeable shells — a vehicle that can go from delivery truck to passenger car by only changing out the top half. Canoo has begun creating such a car.
The EV manufacturer’s innovative function is based on the development of unique multipurpose automotive platforms. These platforms (the flat bottom layer of the vehicle) are complete with wheels, battery engine and a steering wheel. Each is a self-contained, fully electric chassis and independently drivable.
On their own, they resemble a powerful, fully loaded skateboard. Powering the platform chassis is an engine for which Canoo estimates a battery range of up to 250 miles, power output as high as 300 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque.
The chassis is designed to pair with multiple “top hats” made by Canoo with the idea that consumers will save money by replacing only the bottom platform or the top hat when needed, as opposed to replacing the entire car. As a person’s lifestyle changes, the top hat can be updated to fit that lifestyle.
For example, an adventurous rock climber who loads camping equipment in the back of a pickup could, a couple of years later, be married, starting a family and in need of a five-passenger car. If the engine is fine, the original chassis can be kept while the top hat is changed to fit the new lifestyle.
With a waiting list in place, Canoo expects to roll out its first vehicles later this year when it debuts its Lifestyle line. Shaped like a minibus, its Lifestyle Vehicle starts at $34,750 and is marketed as a multi-use platform that can be configured as a delivery van, five-seater, seven-seater or its Adventure car.
According to Aquila, “It’s the first vehicle that’s drive-by-wire, brake-by-wire, harmonized and articulated,” which he explains eliminates several parts, lowers the costs and sets them up to easily convert to autonomous.
“The future is autonomy,” he added. “But right now, we need to build a platform that can accept wherever technology goes. In order to do that, we need to have drive-by-wire, harmonize and articulate, which means you don’t have a steering column, you just have wires.”
This lends flexibility to move the steering wheel and the driver to different positions in the car.
At the moment, Canoo is playing what Aquila calls an “allocation game” as the company deals with a higher demand than it can supply. Depending on the type of vehicle ordered, some customers will receive their cars within the year, while others may be on a waiting list for more than two years.
“The demand is growing so fast for our platform, that it’s changing daily,” he said. “At the same time, we’re making advancements in our ability to produce them while trying to be careful and thoughtful about overpromising and underdelivering.”
Canoo plans to deliver between 3,000 and 6,000 units this year, then 15,000 to 20,000 next year and 45,000 to 75,000 in 2024. Supply chain continues to be an issue for the automotive industry as a whole, and this is affecting electric vehicles as well. While product sourcing is improving, there continues to be a shortage of microchips, and Canoo is working to mitigate that challenge, Aquila said.
Choosing the Heartland
Calling Bentonville a “diamond of evolution,” Aquila noted the company chose Northwest Arkansas and Oklahoma as manufacturing sites, in large part, for the heartland work ethic.
“The workforce there is hard-working, highly skilled and very diverse,” he said. Detroit has the reputation of blue-collar workers; Silicon Valley is white collar, but Bentonville has what Aquila calls “light blue-collar” workers. They are the perfect blend between the manufacturing and computer skillset Canoo needs to bring electric cars to the public. For decades, Detroit has been the mecca of car manufacturing, but Aquila is counting on Arkansas to take over that position.
Additionally — as home to Walmart, Tyson and J.B. Hunt — Northwest Arkansas arguably controls the movement of more physical items than any other region in the world. Walmart, alone, moves hundreds of billions of items every year. Banking on that momentum, Canoo has joined Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s Arkansas Council on Future Mobility. The council works toward pushing the state further in mobility technology, specifically electric vehicles, driverless vehicles, drone delivery and cars that travel by air.
In a recent press conference, Hutchinson said the state is “in a good position to shape the future,” and that he was planning to install more electric charging stations across the state with the $54 million federal funding Arkansas is scheduled to receive over the next five years. This “bold move” by the governor, Aquila says, shows Arkansas is “pushing quietly and effectively advancing.”
While working with Hutchinson, Canoo has also been closely involved with Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt. According to Aquila, his business is the first automotive company to partner with two governors and a nation — the Cherokee nation.
“Half of our workforce will have Cherokee blood in them,” Aquila noted. “To be able to do that and liberate communities as well at a long-time generational technological industrial level is pretty awesome. And, you have some of the best companies that are moving the majority of the country’s goods there. It’s a good spot for us to be, to listen, to learn, to act and provoke change.”