Auto X Prize Notebook

Last week’s initial shakedown stage of the Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize has left me with three primary impressions:

Tango electric: nearly 2000 lb of batteries under the floor.

1) The Edison2 Very Light Car is stunning.

2) Many of the commercially produced electric vehicles are probably just participating as a way of advertising their brands. The Aptera 2e, a limpet-like three-wheeler, needed 40 attempts to pass the 45-mph slalom course. The Consumers Union official supervising the slalom station said it wouldn’t have surprised him to see a three-wheeler roll over here.

3) The laptop unambiguously rules in this automotive competition.

Official Welcome: The Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize is “a great opportunity to highlight Michigan’s automotive leadership,” said Greg Main, president and CEO of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. The X Prize “fits with the strategy to diversify Michigan and to diversify the auto industry.”

Dr. Peter H. Diamandis, chairman and CEO of the X Prize Foundation, explained that the concept for the Automotive X Prize competition started five years ago. The initial entry of 125 cars from 30 countries and 25 states was winnowed to 28 teams and 36 cars in two classes. He said he’s “extraordinarily proud that we’re helping to bring to market a new generation of viable cars.” The important aspect of the X Prize occurs after the $10 million in prize money is distributed to winners, when he looks around and asks: “How have we changed the paradigm?”

Governor Jennifer Granholm held forth about Michigan becoming the leader in advanced battery technology. She made her pitch that X Prize entrants should build the commercialized versions of their cars here. In other words, if the federal and state governments keep pouring money down a rat hole long enough, a couple of idle plants like the Olds factory just a few blocks down Walnut Street could go back to work after leaders have granted enormous concessions.

Most Surprising Revelation: Al Unser, Jr. will drive the factory-entered Zap Alias three-wheeler in competition. Maybe the fat Hoosier dirt tire on the rear of the Alias displayed at the state capitol should have clued me in: this could be his Pike’s Peak ride, too. Junior appeared at Zap’s NADA stand in February. He’ll likely be the only driver who’s won a race at MIS.

Memorable Quote: Gary Starr, of Zap Electric Vehicles, speaking on affordable production models:

“There’s only a few people that are going to buy expensive things if they’re green.”

(Maybe it should’ve been, “There’s only a few people that are going to buy green things if they’re expensive.”

Gov. Granholm to X Prize boss Diamandis: "You know that I can see Canada from my backyard." (Winning caption submitted by Andy Singer.)

Uncertain Status: Martin Möscheid was fuming about the Icelandic volcano. Eyjafjallajökull’s ash cloud had caused such a backup of air cargo out of Frankfurt that his team’s entry was covered up in the garage at Rosenthal, Hessen. He’d been told not even to bring it to the airport. The Project TW4XP Twike, an extended-range-hybrid three-wheeler, wouldn’t be present, as scheduled, for the second group’s shakedown run May 5 and 6. By special arrangement, the team will be allowed to certify the Twike (“Twin Bike”) in the three-day period before the first knockout stage begins the third week of June.

Wow Factor: The Edison2 Very Light Car is an impressive effort. The team led by Oliver Kuttner is exceptionally well-organized. Kuttner wrote in his blog that the team arrived from Lynchburg, Virginia, with just ninety minutes to spare before the first shakedown session. Spokesman David Brown said everybody was really tired.

The team has four cars, each with a frame of steel tubing. The first was built with metal bodywork while the other three have carbon-fiber bodies made in Columbus, Ohio. The carbon-fiber cars weigh in at 750 lb.

Power in two of the entries comes from a rear-mounted, turbocharged 250-cc Yamaha single-cylinder engine that runs on E85. These engines were done right here in Ann Arbor at David Finch’s Raetech Corporation engineering firm. (The other two cars have slightly different powerplants that were built in Utah.) Finch told me his staff of eight to 10 engineers, many with degrees from the University of Michigan, designed the turbocharger in-house.

The alcohol fuel is “most effective in very, very high-performance engines,” he said. “We can run a lot of static compression.”

Alien takeover: Very Light Car visits the Michigan Capitol.

Indeed, the 15.0:1 ratio is high. There’s also a heavy emphasis on exhaust-gas recirculation, which helps to reduce emissions. Pumping losses are diminished because the throttle is generally wide open. The turbo allows for a variable output, but this is limited to 40 hp.

“We may bring it down,” Finch said, depending on where the sweet spot in efficiency is found.

A charmingly earnest little buzz comes out the back of the Very Light Car. Power is managed with a six-speed transmission created by EMCO Gears. Because sports-racing veteran Emanuele Pirro drives the Very Light Car, manual selection is a given.

Brown said the Edison2 team is here on a mission. “Win or not, we feel [with] the innovations we have, we have something to offer the automobile industry. We like to think what we’re doing is very feasible.”

One of the team’s design ethics is to base the whole effort on readily available materials. (The carbon bodywork is race-only trim, and it’s unsustainable in high volume, not only because of the cost and the long process required to cure the material, but also because of the amount of energy consumed in the process.) Steel is already the auto industry’s basis, so why not use it for the chassis? Electric vehicles are loved by politicians and environmentalists, but to win the X Prize, the Edison2 team decided to take to the extreme Colin Chapman’s maxim to “Build in lightness.” (At one point, Kuttner handed me an aluminum lug nut weighing around two-tenths of an ounce.) Batteries and electric motors would make the car Not Very Light.

Instead, the Very Light Car is breathtakingly sleek. Chief of Aerodynamics Barnaby Wainfan designed an honest and uncompromised fuselage that’s somewhat boattailed. If not for the faired-in—I dare say cloistered—15-inch wheels and Continental EcoContact EP 145/65 R15 tires, this little ship would look at home under the wing of a B-52 before a mid-air launch in the quest for an altitude record. Kuttner says the coefficient of drag is officially 0.15. Off the record, he names an even lower figure that is very close to the Dow Divisor of October 2005. Having just a few days earlier read in Automobile Magazine that the incredible Porsche 918 “is expected to check out of the wind tunnel at 0.34,” I felt hairs raise up on my neck. The Porsche was born with elephantiasis!

Setting the wheels so far out required some packaging solutions. Kuttner proudly shows off the front suspension, which represents the opposite of the inboard-mounted springs and shocks of a Formula One car. The Very Light Car incorporates a patented in-wheel suspension. Inside the back part of the wheel, a spindle and a small coil spring do business along side the brake rotor and single-puck caliper. Kuttner restrains his pride in announcing that the patented unit weighs 6.5 pounds.

“I suspect it’s worth more than the X Prize,” he says. “I think this is the game-changing thing.”

The Very Light Car finishes the 45-mph slalom course at MIS.

He says it produces the geometric characteristics of a double-wishbone arrangement. An ancillary benefit of the in-wheel suspension is that the front of the fuselage is free for luggage and crash protection. The rear suspension is a sort of torque tube arrangement shrouding the rear axle, and a single coil spring acts against it, forcing it down and away when under load.

“We’re very careful about where to put the forces,” Kuttner says.

Whether it’ll hold up on Michigan roads will be determined during the first Automotive X Prize knockout rounds later in June. But I’d have to rate this well-conceived entry a favorite for the overall win.

6 thoughts on “Auto X Prize Notebook

  1. Thanks for that post. The VLC looks like a winner!

    Just one observation: please spell Emanuele Pirro’s name correctly.


  2. Pingback: Anonymous
  3. Hi, I’m a friend of Jon Waple and recieved you blog address so I thought I’d see what it was all about. GREAT writing and info. Hope to hear more from you in the future.

    Keep up the great work.


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