DEARBORN -- Finally, a 21st Century car that really looks like it came from the 21st Century.
Edison2, the Lynchburg, Va. outfit that won the $5 million Automotive X Prize back in 2010 for building a safe, fun-to-drive, manufacturable 100 mpg car, unveiled its latest automotive design Thursday at The Henry Ford.
The venue was appropriate. The Henry Ford is a shrine to American innovation, and the Edison2 is packed with innovation from stem to stern.
"I believe this is the beginning of a major change in the auto industry," said Edison2 CEO and founder Oliver Kuttner. "It is the birth of a segment that could be very significant."
(See photos from the event at http://detroit.cbslocal.com/photo-galleries/2013/04/11/a-look-at-the-edison2-vlc-very-light-car/. And to listen to a podcast interview with Oliver Kuttner, visit this link.)
The design features a sleek, aerodynamic body, with its four wheels separate from the body, connected by struts, each wheel in its own aerodynamic pod. The major technologcial breakthrough is placing the suspension inside each wheel -- a patented advance that Kuttner said he expects to sell to other automakers. (He added that taking this advance to technological conclusion will require tires that are taller and narrower than most auto tires today, in order to guarantee sufficient suspension travel for a smooth ride.)
The design emphasizes conventional rather than exotic materials -- it's steel and aluminum, propelled by gasoline engines or batteries and motors that are now conventional for EVs. Its ultralight design achieves safety using technology developed in long-distance racing vehicles.
Keeping the vehicle extremely light creates "a feedback loop," Kuttner said. The drivetrain can be lighter, the suspension can be lighter, the engine can be smaller -- all of which cuts weight as well. The car is also so light that it has no need for power steering or power brakes.
The Edison2 drivable chassis unveiled Thursday, Kuttner said, weighs less than 1,100 pounds. Final production versions should weigh in at about 1,400 pounds. Kuttner insisted that even at that weight, they can pass U.S. safety tests.
Kuttner said the Edison2 will require just 6 hp to cruise at 60 mph. He said the car "will be able to function as a highway car with a 250-cc engine. Of course, with a bigger engine, you have more fun."
Also fun is the car's wide stance, which should give it roller-skate handling.
"The track of this car is six inches wider than a Jetta, but that's because we're racers," he said. "This car is not only going to be green, it's going to be a ton of fun."
In markets with narrower streets, the car could be designed with a narrower track. That's part of a design that Kutter said was "very modular" -- the car could be constructed as anything from a two-passenger minicar to a six-passenger taxi. The struts connecting the wheels are 17 inches off the ground -- and the entire body could be raised that high, creating mammoth ground clearance and thus the chance for a high-MPG off-road vehicle.
Kuttner said Edison2 will "build some cars," but mass production of the vehicles will likely be done by others. "We are very happy and willing to work with OEMs," he said.
When will the cars be sold? "When they're ready," Kuttner replied with a grin. "It's not easy to catch an industry that is 100 years old and is very, very good."
He said the cars could be built to sell for $20,000 profitably at "a modest volume, 10,000 units." Battery and hybrid versions would be in the upper $20s, Kuttner said.
The German-born Kuttner is a former BMW, Porsche, and Audi franchisee and endurance racing enthusiast who also got into downtown real estate redevelopment in Charlottesville and Lynchburg, Va. He said he got involved in the X Prize competition because "the $10 million got my attention. But I very quickly noticed that the $10 million only got my attention. We were on to something much bigger."
He said that in developing an ultra-high-mileage car, he "first analyzed hydrogen, because in 2007 we were assured by our president (George W. Bush at the time) that the hydrogen economy was not that far away, and it was going to solve all our problems." But he said he realized hydrogen would never replace gasoline as a motor fuel -- because it would take 22 tanker trucks of hydrogen to equal the energy in one tanker truck of gasoline.
And electric cars, he said, "have an Achilles heel -- the weight of the battery and the cost of the battery."
Nevertheless, he's offering a battery version of the Edison2, because his cars are so light that he can keep battery cost and weight low. But you can tell Kuttner's heart is still in gasoline.
"We haven't given up on gasoline," he said. "We like gasoline."
To keep cars affordable, exotic materials are out, too, he said.
"The really are only two solutions -- get the weight out of the car and reduce aerodynamic drag," he said.
The VLC has an aerodynamic drag coefficient of 0.16, twice as good as the best cars now on the market.
More about the car at www.edison2.com.
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