The team of insurgents that is a serious threat to capture the entire $10-million purse offered in the Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize operates from a 4000-square-foot shop in Lynchburg, Virginia. Wooden floorboards bear witness to the building’s past life as a textile factory. Metal-bending equipment is arranged throughout the shop, and every so often, the quiet clicking of team members’ computer keyboards is superseded by the screech of a grinder or the hiss of a welding torch. Three of the four Very Light Cars built so far are sitting on work stands. The fourth is in Livonia, Michigan, undergoing engine emissions tests at Rousch Industries.
Eight men who regularly work in this obscure shop near downtown Lynchburg are the core of the Edison2 team. They’ve been toiling nonstop in the year since final plans for the Very Light Car were submitted to the X Prize Foundation. As June’s “Knockout” Round of the competition approaches, they’re getting weary.
Most team members permanently or temporarily reside in Charlottesville, which is 63 miles northeast on U.S. 29. Oliver Kuttner, the visionary leader of Edison2, redevelops buildings in both cities. He happened to have purchased this old factory five years ago. It took a year to carry out all the equipment and ready the space for residential and commercial use. Kuttner squirmed when I mouthed the term “business incubator,” but I think it applies. Tenants include a coffee-roasting company, a secondhand shop, and an auto mechanic. It was natural to base Edison2 here, so the guys commute.
There’s another good reason to be in Lynchburg, a growing city of 75,000. Its location on the James River made it a textile milling center in the nineteenth century. Shoemaking also flourished here. Coincident to these industries was the development of a diverse machine-tool trade that can readily make any part needed for an engineering project that accepts no compromises in saving weight and reducing aerodynamic drag in the effort to achieve 100 mpg. The Very Light Car looks like a baby helicopter, and its parts and fittings are milled to absurdly close tolerances.
I visited the Edison 2 team on May 26, spending the entire day with the team. While there, it occurred to me that the Automotive X Prize is akin to La Grande Semaine d’ Aviation de la Champagne of 1909. Presided over by a Champagne producer, this tournament outside the French city of Reims offered $5000 and the Gordon Bennett Cup to the winner and nothing to the runners-up. There were 31 pilots and 38 planes from 8 countries. With home-field advantage—more planes and pilots entered than other nations—the French thought they had the Cup all wrapped up. Competition was waged in categories such as overall distance, speed tests of 10 and 30 kilometers, and altitude. American pilot Glenn Curtiss defeated the immortal Louis Blériot to win the tourney. “France reeled from national shock over failing to win the Cup,” writes Stephen H. King in his account of the incident.
It’s not hard to see electric cars in the position of the French flyers in the X Prize. Everything about the competition should favor them, and the government probably wants them to win. (Up to $5.5 million in stimulus funds were granted for operational costs involved with the X Prize.) Just last week, President Barack Obama asked the Department of Energy “to work with carmakers and others to promote the development of advanced vehicles including plug-in hybrids and electric cars, and to give technical help to cities preparing for them.”
Kuttner first heard about the X Prize in the spring of 2007. He lured racing engineer Ron Mathis to Virginia that August. They spent a year working on concepts and analyzing data. It led them to scrub the idea of building an electric car. The only way to true efficiency, they decided, was through low weight and superior aerodynamics. When the design phase began, more Edison2 employees were added. Most of them, like Kuttner and Mathis, have a background of involvement in sports-prototype racing.
Kuttner also began to recruit investors.
“At first we were only selling a thought,” he said.
Now he has 5 partners, and nearly every day some noteworthy visitors come through the shop. Wednesday afternoon, a delegation from Randolph College (formerly Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, a.k.a., “The Radcliffe of the South”) was treated to the tour that Kuttner has perfected. Among other things, he’s assembled displays of vehicles crashed at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s Charlottesville research facility to answer the question of how the Very Light Car addresses the issue of safety without having a large surrounding mass.
An aide to one of Virginia’s U.S. senators canceled a 6.30 p.m. visit but will reschedule. And the Governor’s office has been talking to Kuttner about available factory space and money that’s sitting around as the result of the tobacco settlement.
“There’s something really beautiful about having the right idea,” he said.