Ever wonder what firefighters, emergency medical technicians, members of the military and the people who deliver your mail and pick up your trash have in common?
According to William Santana Li, chairman and chief executive officer of Carbon Motors Corp., the answer is: they all have purpose-built vehicles for their jobs.
Conspicuously absent from the list are law enforcement personnel, who generally drive retrofitted Ford Crown Victorias, Chrysler Dodge Chargers or General Motors Chevrolet Impalas.
“I still find it shocking that six years after 9/11 our country’s 800,000 women and men in uniform are patrolling our communities in a vehicle designed in the 1970s as a retail passenger car with some lights on it,” Li said, “and somehow the fire department has their own vehicles, the hospitals have their own ambulances, the military has a huge fleet of purpose-built vehicles. Jeez, your mailman and your garbage man have a special purpose-built vehicle.”
But Carbon Motors, a fledgling automaker created by former Ford executives, plans to change that. Later this year the company will release a prototype of what it dubs the “world’s first purpose-built law enforcement vehicle.” Once Carbon Motors releases the prototype, dubbed the Carbon E7, it will be several years before the car is on the road, Li said.
“We can’t wait to compete,” Li said. “What we’ve done over the last several years is work with about 800 law enforcement agencies — small, medium, large, urban, rural, coastal, state, federal, local authorities — across the entire country. And what we asked them for was: can you please tell us what you want, need and desire?”
From this interaction, Li said, the company received more than 85 “key critical requirements that would need to be met if you had a clean sheet of paper and wanted to build something specifically for them.”
The list, Li said, includes such things as vehicle size, how far it sits off the ground, safety requirements, storage capabilities and durability.
Unlike current law enforcement vehicles — which Li said state and local agencies purchase from dealerships and the federal government purchases from automakers and then have up-fitted at their own auto shops or in private shops — Carbon Motors will produce the E7 with the equipment already integrated and sell it directly to law enforcement agencies.
“There’s all these inefficiencies in the supply chain of getting all the parts and therein lies the opportunity for us,” Li said. “Because if we compare those requirements that we got from the marketplace and compare them against Dodge, Ford and Chevrolet you’d be shocked to know, and we’ll be generous here, those vehicles with the up-fitted equipment meet less than 20 percent of the requirements of what law enforcement has told us that they want.”
Li equated the typical process of law enforcement agencies purchasing the vehicle and up-fitting it with equipment purchased and installed separately to “ordering a tank from one of the big defense suppliers and it doesn’t come with some big pieces of it and the Army has to finish manufacturing it themselves.”
From Factory to Showroom Floor
Carbon Motors, Li said, will be the auto manufacturer, the original equipment manufacturer and the retailer.
“So it will be a . . . very unique business model where it’s a build-to-direct-order type of business model as opposed to the way the auto industry works today, which is bill to inventory,” Li said.
In today’s market, Li said state and local law enforcement agencies typically spend between $22,000 and $24,000 for the retail passenger car and then add between $5,000 and $50,000 worth of equipment.
According to Li, the basic Carbon Motors vehicle will cost about $29,000 in today’s dollars and will top out at around $75,000, depending on which of more than 30 options an agency chooses.
“We’re trying to do this on the up-front portion budget-neutral and on the downstream we want a budget offset or reduction for them in terms of the vehicle lasting that much longer, for it being that much more fuel efficient,” Li said.
The E7’s basic features include siren and sound controls, a fully integrated cockpit, a purpose-built driver’s seat, coach rear doors for improved entry and exit, and a public address system and controls.
“The officers should have the appropriate equipment as first-responders to do their job,” Li said. “And you look at what we’re doing on the interior is we’re going to integrate all the equipment. Again, similar to a cockpit for a jet fighter or a helicopter.”
The car will also have a 250,000-mile durability specification and a clean-diesel, inline six engine that will result in a 40 percent savings in fuel, the company says.
Other features that can be added include nighttime vision capability and an automatic license plate recognition system.
Li said the company has already taken purchase orders and letters of intent for the E7 “from small rural law enforcement agencies to major city law enforcement agencies,” but would not be more specific.
“Later this year, as we approach the official launch, we will be announcing more information on the specifics,” he said.
But auto industry analyst David B. Healy said he wouldn’t give the company much chance of succeeding.
“The cost of entry is extremely high,” he said. “No one has succeeded in it in the post-World War II period [in the United States].
“With all the development expenses and so on, it just hasn’t been done because the economics of it are so impossible,” said Healy, an analyst with Burnham Securities Inc. “There is a huge overhead in developing a car.”
Healy also noted that the law enforcement auto market is “relatively small.”
Despite the odds, Healy said there is a need for a purpose-built law enforcement vehicle “to a degree.”
“Most police forces have been doing fine with modified Ford Crown Victorias for years,” Healy said. “And Ford is gradually discontinuing the . . . Victoria because the basic fleet and personal demand for it is shrinking to almost zero. It’s an obsolete car from the passenger point of view. So, police forces are looking around for a replacement. But, I think to make a profit on selling cars to police forces, you’d have to price it out of sight.”
While not necessarily completely sold on the Carbon Motors car, members of the law enforcement and first-responder community seem open to the idea.
Wendy Balazik, a spokeswoman for the International Association of Chiefs of Police, said the vehicle sounds like it could be useful. “We are very interested in learning more about it,” she said.
“As far as interest, certainly,” said Rich Roberts, public information officer for the International Union of Police Associations. “We want to know about it as much as we can. . . . I know nothing about the car or the company at this point. This is the first I’ve heard of it. So, I’d like to know a lot more. But, just conceptually, I think it’s a great idea to have things designed specifically for law enforcement.”
Roberts said if the company “does its job right, they will have consulted with field level officers, we’re talking the men and women who actually have to go out and use these things.”
“If they have done this, then I think they’ve got a real step up to producing an important addition to the law enforcement toolbox,” he said.
But when asked if there was a need for this type of car, he said, “In these current times, need isn’t the driving factor, budget is.
“If they do it right, they could be very competitive. You bet,” he said. “But they’ve got to take a hard look at the marketplace.”
Roberts also emphasized the importance of having the vehicle “designed in such a way to give the officer better protection.”
“It comes back to officer safety above all else,” Roberts said. “And that means the handling capabilities of the vehicle under adverse conditions and characteristics that increase the officers’ personal safety above and beyond the question of handling.”
Wayne Huggins, executive director of the Virginia State Police Association, agreed that economics and safety would be key.
“If it allows you to do your job as good or . . . better, if it allows you to be as safe or safer and if it allows you to be as cost effective or more cost effective, then I would say that law enforcement would probably take a strong hard look at it,” he said.
Huggins, who wasn’t familiar with the company or the vehicle, said economics includes the purchase cost, the life cycle cost and the cost to fuel it.
Ken Murphy, director of Oregon’s Department of Emergency Management and president of the National Emergency Management Association, said he likes the premise of the company. The needs of law enforcement personnel “are just as unique as firefighters or ambulance companies or things like that,” he said.
But echoing the industry analyst Healy, Murphy warned that entering the market could be challenging.
“It is ambitious,” he said. “It’s probably not as easy as one would think when you are going up against well-established car manufacturing organizations like Ford.”
Daniel Fowler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Adfero Group represents Carbon Motors in its efforts to raise public awareness for law enforcement’s need for a purpose-built car.