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What the future of the auto industry will look like

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But if the company is to turn out 50,000 of these swoopy things a year by 2012, as it plans, it needs cash – and today investment dollars are hard to come by. So Bright has turned to the federal government. The firm has applied for $35 million in grants from the stimulus bill, as well as a $450 million loan from a Department of Energy green technology program.

Bright is hardly the only US firm with an idea like IDEA. At least a half-dozen start-up companies, with names like Aptera and Visionary Vehicles, are vying for funding to build the next-generation automobile.

Many – probably most – won’t survive. That shouldn’t be surprising, as firms rose and fell in the early years of the internal combustion engine, too. Who today remembers the Mercer Raceabout, or Essex, or Nash Statesman? All were cutting-edge cars in their heyday. But their heydays all turned out to be brief.

Of course, nothing is certain about the auto industry these days. It is shaking to its very foundations. Toyota is losing money. A niche Swedish sports-car maker has bought country icon Saab. Hummer has become less fashionable than Hyundai. Chrysler’s next model may be based on the Fiat 500, a car so small that it looks like a Dodge Charger’s lunch.

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