Cop Won’t Drive Cop Car: Carbon Motors Declares Bankruptcy

The video above is the closest we’ll ever have to enjoying a World’s Wildest Police Chases segment featuring the Carbon Motors E7. Somewhat lost in the breaking news of March regarding the bankruptcy of Fisker Automotive and Coda was the demise of the nation’s other other startup vehicle manufacturer, the Carbon Motors Corporation. Although Bertel correctly predicted Carbon’s deathshortly after they failed to qualify for a DOE loan last year, the company maintained a brave public face and soldiered on defiantly until the end of March. As late as mid March they were announcing the introduction of two new vehicles: an armored truck called the TX 7 and a skateboard shaped drone called the CT 7.  Two weeks later they would be slipping out of their Indiana state taxpayer funded digs  without so much as a “Dear John” letter to the desperate Hoosiers who needed the jobs they’d promised

I’d been watching and waiting for an official announcement that the company had liqudated before poking the body with a stick. That moment finally came on June 7 with a Chapter 7 filing in Indianapolis. The bankruptcy filing shows that Carbon Motors had assets of less than $19,000 and outstanding liabilities of over $21 million. It seems that the dream of a purpose-built police car is dead.

In the post-mortem analysis, there are three questions that I think need to be answered. The first, which this piece will attempt to address is “Was there really ever a market for a dedicated police vehicle?” The second question is “Was Carbon Motors all just a big scam to suck at the government teat?” The third question is “Did the Big 3 learn anything from Carbon Motors that will benefit police and emergency vehicles in the future?’ Those opinion pieces will be forthcoming, but for now I just want to focus on the first question of whether it was ever a good idea.

To narrow the scope of this piece even further, I’m also going to limit my analysis to the fiscal case against Carbon Motors. There were other bad ideas, such as using a BMW powertrain combo that would be difficult to get serviced in wide swaths of flyover America, but I believe what would have really killed the Carbon E7 was it’s projected cost. Yes, I know many of you will laugh when I say that fiscal austerity matters to government, but the truth is that at the state and local level it does. State, county, and local governments buy the vast majority of patrol cars, not the Federal government. Unlike the Feds, they can’t print money.

The E7 concept struck me as the answer to a question that nobody asked. While readers will no doubt recall my documentation of and endless bitching about the shortcomings of the Ford Police Interceptor Sedan and the Dodge Charger, I just didn’t see the need for a dedicated patrol vehicle, particularly for one at the price point that the Carbon E7 was rumored to cost. The price point was a moving target and never officially disclosed by Carbon. Their representatives were always cagey, claiming that their car would come straight from the factory at a price that was “competitive” to a “completely equipped” patrol car.

“Completely equipped” in Carbon’s viewpoint meant a car loaded down with every crime fighting tool and toy ever invented, from the necessary and mundane stuff like lights and a siren to the fantastic yet probably not necessary such as their biological and chemical agent detectors. The first estimate that I can remember hearing was $70,000. A search of articles about the E7 archived through the Wayback Machine gave me estimates ranging from $50K in a 2009 cnet.com article to a statement in 2008 by Carbon Motors officials that the average cost of a fully equipped police car was $80,000.

That’s an insane amount of money for a patrol car. I spoke with the technicians at my department’s fleet services unit and asked how much extra it costs to completely outfit a new cruiser. The reply was “About $10,000.” That sounds like a lot of money, but through the magic of the public bid process, it’s actually not. The taxpayers get a lot of stuff for ten large that really is necessary to turn a Taurus with blacked out trim and a cheap interior into a functional patrol unit. The Carbon Motors’ estimate of $80K per completed unit is way off. It raises the question of whether or not you could even spend that much money on a patrol car if you tried, so I did.

Using the fleet pricing information I got when I wrote my article on the Dodge Charger, I started off with a basic V-8 powered RWD Charger Pursuit for $23,585. I added $1,460 worth of factory options (wheel covers, Bluetooth, a few other odds and ends) for a total price of $25,045 for the basic car delivered from Dodge.

I then used retail pricing from Gall’s and other emergency equipment vendors to add everything else I could dream of to a patrol car. Whenever there was a choice in a piece of equipment, I picked the mid- range/ mid- priced option. I “spent” $2,375 on lights, which included a full light bar as well as a UFO’s worth of extra strobes hidden in the foglights, grille, and other places on the car. A mid- level RADAR unit went for $2,300, while a video recording system costs $3,200. A Panasonic Toughbook, which is one of the most popular choices for use as a Mobile Data Computer, was $3,500.

By the time all was said and done I came up with a total of $14,440 worth of additional pieces and parts. Add that to the base price of the car and you get $39,485 for a complete patrol car, less than half of what Carbon Motors claimed a fully equipped patrol car would cost in 2008.

No, a cash strapped police department (and there isn’t any other kind these days) could have two fully equipped patrol cars for $80,000 and that’s only if the person in charge of purchasing was stupid enough to pay retail for everything and the agency insisted on adding every bell and whistle invented to every car. The vast majority of department’s don’t add half of the stuff I added to my dream cruiser and none of them add everything to every car.

Carbon Motors appeared to operate on the theory that police departments do. One of the innovations that Carbon claimed was the establishment of their “Carbon Council,” which did manage to achieve some acclaim as an early example of crowd sourcing. While Carbon’s website makes the “Carbon Council” sound like a highly screened and elite panel of law enforcement experts selected to give valuable input into the police car of the future, in practice the group appears to have served up the law enforcement equivalent of The Car Built For Homer.

As a low-level cog in the Big Blue Machine of an urban police department I’m always more than happy to grumble about the condition of various pieces of my equipment to my fellow low-level cogs, but I don’t want the high level cogs to spend $80,000 on a single super cruiser. One of the (many) hats I wear is that of union goon Grievance Committee Chairperson for Bluegrass Lodge #4 of the Fraternal Order of Police. Our fleet has been neglected over the last couple of budget cycles and we’ve got some pretty ancient Crown Vics on the road. It appears we’re finally going to be getting a decent number of new cars this coming fiscal year. If the powers that be were going to buy only half the number of cars to replace some of our more ragged out units because they wanted to buy Carbon E7s instead of Ford Police Interceptors, I can assure you that the union would throw a very public fit. Municipal financing is a zero sum game.

The fiscal case for Carbon Motors never made sense, which explains why the company was never able to attract private investment. If a simple union goon with an Associate’s Degree in Police Studies gets that, than obviously people who are paid to make and manage money for other people would get it too. The only entity silly enough to invest in Carbon Motors appears to have been the state of Indiana. Part two will examine how that happened.

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