GM invests $6 mln in electric bus maker Proterra

DETROIT (Reuters) – A General Motors Co unit has invested $6 million and taken an undisclosed stake in Proterra Inc, which makes electric commercial transit buses.

GM Ventures is part of a group led by venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers that will invest a total of $30 million in Proterra.

Golden, Colorado-based Proterra, which was founded in 2004, makes zero-emission, electric buses at a temporary plant in Greenville, South Carolina, GM said.

When fully loaded with 68 passengers, the vehicle achieves the equivalent of about 24 miles per gallon — 600 percent better than the typical diesel bus, GM said. It has a 40-mile range and can recharge in about 10 minutes using the company’s fast-charging technology.

“This (investment) specifically demonstrates our commitment to the electrification of the automobile,” Jon Lauckner, president of GM Ventures, said on a conference call.

GM does not make electric commercial buses at this point, but Lauckner said the Proterra investment “certainly gives us an option.”

GM has garnered attention with its plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volt car. The U.S. automaker’s push into electric vehicles is partly aimed at seizing the green mantle Toyota Motor Corp earned with the roll-out of its popular Prius hybrid vehicle.

The investment marks the seventh by GM’s venture capital arm, which was established last June with $100 million in funding. The investments have ranged in size from $3 million to $7 million, totaling about $36 million.

Lauckner said GM Ventures has a couple of more deals closing soon that would boost how much it has invested in total by “a fair amount,” but he declined to provide details.

One of GM Ventures’ areas for investment focus is in technologies involving the greening and electrification of vehicles. Other areas include in-car information-entertainment technologies, sensors or processors, and “smart” or advanced materials that can improve vehicle performance or cut costs.

GM Ventures is headed by Lauckner, a veteran GM engineer, and overseen by GM Vice Chairman Steve Girsky, a former investment banker in charge of strategy at the automaker.

Three of Proterra’s buses are in a test fleet near Pomona, California, with more to be added, GM said. New buses and charging stations are also headed to San Antonio and Tallahassee, Florida, later this year.

The investment by GM and others allows Proterra to complete federal validation testing of its bus, roll out additional pilot fleets and reduce costs at the manufacturing plant, where it will have capacity to build 400 buses a year, GM said.

Proterra Chief Executive Jeff Granato said his company wants to learn from GM regarding energy storage systems. He added his company would initially focus on the U.S. market.

The investment group also includes Mitsui & Co Ltd, Vision Ridge Partners and 88 Green Ventures.

Shares of GM were down 0.5 percent at $28.71 in afternoon trading. (Reporting by Ben Klayman; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn, Dave Zimmerman)