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Inside look: Startup companies powering the electric future at the Detroit Auto Show

Posted at 11:40 AM, Sep 13, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-13 17:19:55-04

DETROIT (WXYZ) — The new and best of the auto world will be on display for the next week-and-a-half at the North American International Auto Show in downtown Detroit at Huntington Place.

The last auto show was in 2019 before the coronavirus pandemic. Electric vehicle technology has come a long way since then.

“You are looking at our first working prototype. This has been two years in the process,” Plug Zen founder and CEO Kawbena Johnsin said. “It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

Plug Zen, a Black-owned Detroit startup company, supplies infrastructure to power EVs.

“I started at Ford Motor Company, and we worked with alternative fuel vehicles. And I saw electric vehicles having the most promise,” Johnsin said.

He thought this in 2006 and several startups later, he’s launching in the Motor City.

7 Action News asked Johnsin why he decided to launch in Detroit.

“Why not," he responds. "Detroit is where we put the world on wheels. So, let’s put them on electric wheels."

Startup companies are trying to get a ground-floor position in this growing segment.

Autel is a California-based company that has been an auto supplier for 18 years. They have a charging venture that just hit the market in July.

“We're doing bidirectional charging. So, we're taking energy out of the battery, putting it back in the house,” John Thomas with Autel said.

We’ve heard that before with the Ford F-150 Lightning pickup truck that’s now on the market. But Autel is not a carmaker; they supply infrastructure.

“It's all inside the box, so you don't need any add-ons or anything. It'll actually disconnect the home, run everything and it's all set,” Thomas said.

That sounds great after metro Detroit recently went through another round of crippling storms and power outages for hundreds of thousands.

Widespread storm damage

But get this: an EV power supply is very limited.

The nation needs this infrastructure and somebody’s got to provide it for private and commercial markets.

“The sky's the limit. Actually Autel, we want to power the planet. That's our slogan. We really want to take over the space and be the guys,” Thomas said.

Everybody is looking for a niche in this new market. Is it a good harbinger of things to come? One new startup called Harbinger is hoping to find out.

“Fully electric, lower floor, batteries contained completely in the frame and powertrain packaged entirely at the rear axle,” Harbinger Chief Technology Officer Phil Weicker said.

He says it sets them apart from the rest of the market.

Harbinger is targeting Amazon, FedEx, UPS, the United States Postal Service and smaller companies with a niche.

“This is a segment that’s been forgotten about,” Weicker said.

While this is a company based out of California, they plan to announce within five weeks where final assembly will be in metro Detroit.

President Joe Biden will be at the Detroit Auto Show Wednesday talking EVs.