The Peapod NEV - A Green Dream Mashed in Chrysler's BankruptcyBy John O'Dell June 16, 2010
It was only a 25 mph Neighborhood Electric Vehicle, plastic-bodied and limited to residential streets, but its unique looks brought smiles and for many who saw it the Peapod helped make the electric car a little less intimidating.
Branding impresario Peter Arnell, working under the aegis of Chrysler, fashioned a friendly, integrated and practical vehicle in a category that was marked by dowdy glorified golf carts.
And New York-based Arnell drafted a network of celebrity friends help publicize his creation, appearing with Peapod on The Today Show with Matt Lauer and with Martha Stewart on her eponymous program.
It was just a year ago - June 10, 2009 - that Arnell stood proudly beside California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as a Peapod was unveiled at the state's capitol building in Sacramento.
Last thing we heard directly from the company, the first deliveries of the four-seat NEV were to begin last October, via Chrysler's Global Electric Motorcars (GEM) subsidiary. Buyers of the fully enclosed car were supposed to be able to get it in any of seven colors, for a suggested retail price of $12,500.
Then October came and went and silence is all there was.
No production Peapod ever was manufactured; none was delivered. It died on the vine.
Chrysler's bankruptcy filing last spring, its complete reorganization, and its takeover by the U.S. government and Italy's Fiat SpA pulled the plug on Peapod and quashed Arnell's dream.
"Given their priorities, I assume it wasn't a candidate for Chrysler," any longer, Arnell (right) told Green Car Advisor in a recent interview. "I really don't know. All I know is the project was ready for market and on schedule, and it had been coming a long way, culminating with the appearance with [Schwarzenegger]. I am unaware of the specifics."
Well, if Arnell didn't know, there was just one other place to go.
So we asked Chrysler.
Company spokespeople were loathe to discuss Peapod at all, but one finally relented, asking that we not use his name.
"The 'old' GEM - including Peapod - was dissolved [in March]," he said. The company's assets were transferred to a liquidating trust, which hopes to sell them and distribute the cash proceeds to creditors.
Meanwhile, the spokesman said, the "new" GEM continues in business - without Peapod - as a unit of the reorganized, or "new," Chrysler.
It seems that Arnell's relationship with Chrysler was through its former CEO, Robert Nardelli.
Arnell had done some work for Nardelli when the latter was CEO of Home Depot, and after Nardelli was hired in 2007 by the investment fund that then owned Chrysler, he brought in Arnell to become acting chief innovation officer.
Arnell spent much of his time working on an electric-car initiative that became Peapod. After all, even though it sold NEVs designed largely for industrial campuses and parks departments, GEM was the top electric-drive platform in the U.S. by sales volume and had been in business for about 10 years.
Arnell and Nardelli saw the company as an up-and-running electric-vehicle platform whose products just needed to be adapted for consumer use.
The Peapod was designed by Arnell to do that and indeed was engaging, featuring a slippery design, a fully enclosed body with a removable roof for sunny days, a "smile" integrated into the front and rear fascia, recessed headlights, and interior gizmos including integration of the car's controls with an iPhone or iPod.
Taillights light up Peapod's "smile" on the rear fascia.
The design gave GEM a product with consumer appeal.
Chrysler still owns the Peapod design, Arnell said, while he retains the rights to the Peapod "naming strategy and concept." That appears to mean that if we ever see the quirky NEV hit the market through GEM, it won't be as a Peapod.
Arnell told us that if he were to go back to the drawing board with another EV, he would fashion a full-service Electric Vehicle like the Nissan Leaf - which can drive at highway speeds - rather than the limited NEV.
"The world has changed again," he said, "so I would have a different design configuration."
He might get a chance. He's out of Chrysler and recently became now a board member and chief innovation officer of De Tomaso, the struggling Italian automaker - just out of bankruptcy liquidation - that is best known here for ithe exotic Pantera luxury-performance car.
Meantime, despite the demise of the first Peapod, Arnell says he's happy the effort was made.
"People really viewed the Peapod as an incredible case study in how you could - in modern times - bring forward a completely new idea in the automotive sector in the space of just several months," he said. "It was pretty phenomenal."