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Interview with an Entrepreneur: Johnaton Grech, the CHREOS and the future of Electric Vehicles

Sitting down for a chat with Johnaton Grech, during a rare break in his busy schedule, reveals a man who is determined to stretch the limits of the current standards in the electric vehicle (EV) industry.

At 39, Mr Grech, CEO of Silex Power, an alternative energy firm based in Nadur, Gozo, has already amassed many years of experience working in green energy and electronics. It is therefore quite natural that given this background, combined with a passion for cars, he would be the mind behind Chreos -- a luxury electric car which was announced to the world in February 2013.

Johnaton Grech talks about Chreos and the future of electric vehicles.

The concept designs of the Chreos, which is slated to roll out of production in 2015, caught the attention of both the local and international media. It is going to be constructed out of lightweight carbon fibre which will be modelled into the sleek, sweeping curves that grace the exterior of this four-door sedan; a design executed by Maltese stylist Reuben Zammit. Its sporty appearance contrasts heavily with the bulky proportions of a typical EV, but what excited people the most is what lay inside.

The interior of the Chreos is an elegant and opulent space, characterised by leather and wood fittings, that seats up to four people. Its design reflects the soft lines that characterise its exterior, but the centrepiece here is the on-board computer system. Unlike most cars, Chreos dispenses with a cluttered dashboard full of knobs and buttons. Instead it presents a clean panel, at the centre of which is a large display which gives the driver a host of options and instant updates about the vehicle and the road conditions.

But the Chreos isn’t just about the aesthetics. Johnaton claims that this car will be fitted with 640 bhp, goes from zero to 100 km/h in under 3 seconds, and can cover a 1000 km range at an average cruising speed of 125 km/h after only 10 minutes of charge using special hypercharging technology. No wonder that many international media outlets, including Fox News, which picked up the story, initially dubbed the project as ‘far-fetched’ and ‘unrealistic’.

Johnaton doesn’t let this resistance faze him however and is unapologetic when it comes to defending his ambitious plans. He explains that Silex is simply utilising and improving on existing technologies, and incorporating them in a project which will revolutionise the lifestyle of consumers.

He readily admits that announcing Chreos was a bold move, especially given that the local EV market is a very small one and doesn’t have an established reputation for car production as other countries do. Yet, he insists that venturing into the EV industry was a calculated pathway; that its full implications had been thoroughly studied before electric mobility was added to Silex’s portfolio.

A Long Road
Although Johnaton did a brief stint with a company involved in exhaust systems in the past, his foray into electric mobility presented him with new and bigger challenges. However, he could count on his previous experiences in electronic systems to provide him with a fresh perspective on electric vehicles that went beyond the usual expectations.

One of the distinguishing features of his views on electric mobility is seen in the paradigm shift he put as his basis for designing Chreos; the vehicle isn’t simply a motor with four wheels attached and specific mechanics, but more so an advanced computer system that can be consistently experienced by the driver irrespective of its outer trappings.

Johnaton takes this new perspective on motoring very seriously. He is adamant that given today’s technology, vehicles are defined more by their functionality -- the quality of the driver’s experience behind the wheel -- rather than their form. As such, he believes that Silex is really in the business of building advanced IT systems that can be adapted to an automotive purpose: a business which he is most familiar with.

The It Connection: How Software Drives Cars
Johnaton finds it easy and logical to explain the changing realities of the EV industry by comparing it to the evolution of computers over the decades, beginning from the 1990s. Back then, the major defining feature of computers was their hardware. Their physical component dictated what they could or couldn’t do; software was fully dependent on the underlying hardware for it to run properly.

The tide turned in the new millennium, as software development became more powerful and sophisticated, and had the potential to radically affect the underlying functionality of the device it was installed on.

Johnaton believes that this shift had its parallel in the automotive field. Whereas previously most advancements were based on manufacturers developing better physical components to improve upon their latest models, nowadays software management plays the major role in the automotive innovation.

He is keen to point out that software enhancements can dictate the control and feel of a vehicle and that we have now reached a point where cars are based around how their creators envision the driving experience, rather than when the vision is based upon engineering better physical components.

The complexity of the computer systems that support the functioning of today’s vehicles means that it is undesirable to build a particular system around specific hardware since this would greatly limit the usefulness of the system. Silex aims to develop a cutting-edge IT platform that can be implemented in other EVs, thus greatly expanding its utility and relevance to the industry.

Rock-Solid Idea
There is a common thread in Johnaton’ business ventures which is nicely summed by the symbolism in the name of his company, Silex. He explains that this name came about from the Greek word for ‘rock’. The reason why it is this word which was adopted was initially due to his involvement in real estate projects and development. Silex was therefore a tongue-in-cheek reference to his original line of business, but the name would also fit presciently to later endeavours in green technology. From stone to silicon chips, Johnaton’s company expanded on its involvement in renewable energy and technology and thus entered into the field of EVs.

Not content with being simply another competitor in the industry, his aim was to implement almost a decade’s worth of progress in the software driving electric cars into a vehicle which could match, and in some cases exceed, the standards that are normally only expected out of conventional luxury cars. It took nearly two years of intense planning before Silex could finally reveal the actual images of the car and trigger the wave of expectation that surrounded the announcement of Chreos.

From the start, Johnaton’s entrepreneurial ambitions could only be satisfied by introducing a game-changer to the EV market. The idea of a luxury green vehicle had been lurking in his mind for a long time, but it was only after he was given the opportunity to modify and distribute cars for other automotive brands that he finally decided to design and build his very own vehicle. EV is a relatively young industry which is still burdened with the unfavourable image of bulky, unseemly cars that go slow and need to be frequently charged. The idea of ‘electric car’ is still largely seen in contrast to that of a ‘real car’; he admits that so far only vehicles from the likes of Tesla Motors and BMW have managed to bridge that gap, with other manufacturers still at a very early stage in development. For this reason, he believes that the EV  industry is in a very fluid state and a startup like Silex enjoys the possibility of leapfrogging ahead over more established brands if Chreos proves to be a viable and attractive offer.

The relative lack of experience in the automotive field doesn’t daunt him. He stands firmly by his belief that, fundamentally, an electric car is a computer on wheels and calls upon his experience in controlled robotics as his main source of inspiration instead. As an entrepreneur, Johnaton is aware of the risks that are involved whenever venturing into pristine fields, however he is optimistic that within a decade EVs will exert a more prominent force in the automotive market due to technical breakthroughs that will improve their efficiency and maintenance needs, as well as an increase in general awareness of EVs as an environmentally-friendly alternative.

Ups And Downs Of A Bumpy Ride

Although future prospects may look bright for EVs, the current situation suggests a very different picture. Hefty price tags, low distance ranges and lengthy charging times are the biggest holdback factors hampering the sales of electric cars.

Money-wise, even the most basic of EV models compete in a price range which includes conventional cars that are far more luxurious and offer better performance to the buyer. Moreover, many EVs only manage a driving distance in the 100-120 km range before their battery needs recharging. And  high-end models like the Tesla retail at prices that are prohibitive to the average consumer and severely restricts their market. Long charging times is another reason why EVs are shunned in favour of less environmentally-friendly alternatives. The convenience of filling up a conventional car in a few seconds is no comparison with waiting hours at a time for an EV to be fully charged.

These three factors: price, range and charging times, fuel most of the criticism that is levelled at EVs by sceptics. As technology advances and more competitors enter the market, electric cars will become progressively more affordable due to cheaper components and price will not be such a sticking point for consumers. However, range and charging times will require more extensive innovation to be made before drivers will be confident enough to switch to driving an EV.

Although the barrage of criticism that is directed at EVs would discourage anyone, Johnaton is intent on pointing out that most of it is in fact fuelled by inaccurate impressions of EVs that have been perpetuated by the media and people who have never driven an EV. He claims it is actually very easy to change one’s mind about EVs once you’ve driven one and better understand the differences in technology. Electric cars are easier to drive than their conventional counterparts, simpler to maintain, quieter, safer, and do not damage the environment. These benefits are often fully appreciated only after the consumer builds the courage to switch.
A few months after Silex released its press release announcing the Chreos, Tesla unveiled its own luxury electric car, the Model S, in the United States. This has inevitably drawn many to compare the Chreos to the Model S. He readily acknowledges that the US-based company is a direct competitor of Silex at the moment and actually uses Tesla to illustrate his belief about the power of startups in kickstarting the EV industry and raising its standards.

Although larger motor companies are now experimenting with producing their own electric models, he believes that their legacy and heavy investments in promoting conventional technology is weighing them down and making it harder for them to switch and adjust to an alternative technology overnight. Meanwhile, smaller, more ‘agile’ companies like Tesla and Silex are born out of the desire to innovate in this area and consequently they are in a better position to lead the industry’s efforts with their rapid technological advancements.

An Electric Market
The world of alternative fuel cars was rocked a while back by the decision of motoring-giant Toyota to back Lexus technology and move towards producing hydrogen-powered vehicles instead of electric or hybrid ones. In the face of this decision, Johnaton sticks to his guns and states that by virtue of it being the simplest technology, hybrid is still the most probable choice that will fuel tomorrow’s generation of environmentally-friendly cars.

He points out the biggest drawback of hydrogen technology, namely the difficulty to distribute it efficiently even in the most developed countries. He completely rules out hydrogen as being a viable option for Malta: the investment needed to upgrade petrol stations in order to store hydrogen would be enormous and would also possible a huge safety risk.

Even a heavily industrialised region like California would only manage a basic hydrogen distribution structure at best. Hybrid technology requires the installation of electrical charging stations and pillars, which are easier to install and more cost-effective. For these reasons he firmly believes that EVs and their hybrid variants will be the next generation of alternative cars to dominate the market.

Changing Gears
This vision of a luxury electric car that will be as good, if not better, than high-end conventional cars is built around his desire to innovate and address the two major pitfalls of EVs, namely being lengthy charging times and short distance range.

Silex has developed the technology required to create very high-density batteries which can store about three times the energy that a Tesla battery can, in spite of weighing about a third of its weight. He claims that Silex is currently working on hypercharging technology that will enable these batteries to be fully charged in less than 10 minutes, a fraction of what normally is a lengthy and tedious process. The Model S - considered to be the current market leader - needs at least one hour to completely charge.

Thanks to its innovative technology, Johnaton suggests that it will be possible to plug in and charge your Chreos at special hypercharging platforms at petrol stations, putting an end to fears of being left stranded on the road. The car’s intelligent on-board computer will be able to detect nearby charging stations and give you directions to charge your vehicle when energy levels are low. When not in use, you will be able to plug in your Chreos while it’s in the garage and automatically charge it at a slower rate through solar panels installed outside.

We are thus told that there is far more at stake in the Chreos project than successfully producing the first Maltese-made luxury electric car.; a successful  convergence between the experiences he obtained while working in IT and the green energy fields is what Johnaton seeks. The two together can result in an economically viable electric car that is good for business as well as for the environment.
There have already been numerous encouraging signs in the market due to Tesla’s success with their own luxury EV. When news about the Chreos broke out, the market was massively sceptic and reactions from both sides of the Atlantic were largely negative.

However, recent developments in next-generation vehicles indicate that the market is all set to accept long-range, fast-charging EVs, confirming that the car developed by Silex is a sound model of what the future will hold. Johnaton boldly states that the Chreos triggered a shift in the mindset that characterised the EV industry, and that Tesla’s success amply confirms that the direction that Silex has taken was a trend-setter for the industry.

Driving The Extra Mile
Despite the encouraging signs about the market’s reception to high-standard luxury EVs, he still has to confront the fact that although Chreos will be hand-crafted in Malta, its target buyers will be mainly located in foreign markets. There is already strong interest by buyers in Russia and China for the Chreos and the limited first batch of 300 models will be mainly exported to these countries. This was a decision which was taken after assessing the cost of producing a vehicle which truly embodies the advanced automotive technology of a green era.

A less sophisticated, entry-level vehicle would be cheaper and more suited to the local market, but its impact would be nothing in comparison to the revolution which the Chreos is expected to unleash upon the EV industry.

Johnaton justifies the hefty price-tag of the Chreos by explaining that the only way Silex could reasonably produce a vehicle with such an advanced on-board technology was by creating a luxury offering that would be targeted to higher price ranges. However, he doesn’t exclude the possibility of constructing cheaper versions of the Chreos for the European and North American markets once sales pick up.

The focal points of Silex’s advances in electric mobility are its contributions in on-board software and in battery management, charging and capacity. The luxury aspect of the Chreos was a business decision that could sustain the development costs of these technological advances. The costs faced by the company to engineer all the cutting-edge technology that is packed inside the Chreos could be recouped by packaging it within a high-end luxury car that would look as exceptional from the hardware aspect as it does from the software one.

This strategy isn’t unique to Silex. we are keenly informed  that Tesla went down the same road with the Model S and that its success only confirms how his vision is coherent with the market’s direction. Silex needs to keep an edge on their competition in order to tap into this emerging market and Johnaton thinks that their major asset is that as a small company, Silex is not constrained by legacy and consumer expectations, unlike bigger companies. They are free to innovate and push the boundaries by designing innovative interiors and tapping into the full potential that software-centred electric cars hold.

Owners take great pride in caring for their cars, so won’t an electric car come across as a bit dull due to the lack of human involvement? No, says he:  an electric car can actually be more exciting than a conventional car since you can programme it and personalise the driving experience to your style.

The software responds and adapts the car to the person behind the wheel. A driver who enjoys driving in a sporty way can optimise the car for a more daring style of driving, whereas somebody more cautious can adjust the same car to a more restrained experience. The beauty of the advanced software is that it affords a lot of customisability features that make the car simpler, safer and more enjoyable to drive. It also cuts down on maintenance costs, so if you’re not handy around cars you won’t have to worry about changing the oil.

Fasten Your Seatbelts
Johnaton is well aware that the EV industry has been characterised by numerous ambitious companies who promised that they will radically change the market but then failed to deliver. A recent case in point is the Zap-X, an electric car whose concept designs were of very similar specifications to the Chreos but which never saw the light of day. The risk of investing heavily in new technology and then never seeing it pay off is substantial in this line of business, so what makes Silex different from its predecessors? A well-structured business model and a careful reading of the signs in the market are the defining characteristics, according to Johnaton. He is unequivocal about his company’s intention to make the Chreos a success and believes that the timing is right for this to become a reality.

However, a good dose of criticism also helps to keep him in touch with the realities of the situation. He acknowledges that Silex used the varied feedback it received after unveiling the Chreos to creatively adjust its strategy and push harder in its bid to make the concept a reality. And thus, the Chreos must be a vehicle unlike any other; one that distinguishes itself from its competition in both the electric and conventional luxury car ranges. The Chreos will be a testament to Silex’s and Malta’s ability to produce high-tech, ecofriendly vehicles.

He is confident that once people will have the opportunity to test the Chreos and experience its advanced technology, they will immediately note the difference in performance and quality when compared to other electric cars and even to conventional vehicles. This unique combination of aesthetic and technological innovation will put the Chreos in a market of its own, a market which has been giving out strong positive signals that it is ready to cause a shift in automotive habits.

No secret is made of the fact that the Chreos is not a car for everyone. However, Johnaton believes that such a unique and innovative concept can succeed in attracting early adopters and develop a strong niche client base due to the high demand that characterises the rapidly-growing EV market. With the backing of a strong team, he is certain that when the Chreos finally hits the market as is shortly due, it will offer drivers a ride to remember. I certainly won’t forget to give him a call and ask about that test drive I was promised.

Last modified onSunday, 01 February 2015 22:09
Mark Debono

Mark Debono, who practices Martial Arts, has a Bachelor’s degree in Communication and Psychology from the University of Malta and is Director of the internet marketing firm Systemato. Mark is a seasoned online marketing consultant, consultant copywriter and freelance writer with a penchant for technology, the internet, blogging, copywriting and faultless grammar

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