At regular intervals, like a jewelry mold, Oliver Kuttner expels another golden epigram. Ideas and insights boil from the founder of Edison2 and co-creator of the Very Light Car.
“The rectangle has run its course,” he says, referring to boxy automotive design that, unlike the Very Light Car, encloses the wheels within the body. The next step in aerodynamic efficiency, which the Very Light Car represents, requires the wheels to be freed, to be moved out and away.
Born in Munich in 1961, Kuttner came with his family to the United States during his teen years. Educated at Boston University in management and French, he has a remarkable knack for penetrating to the core of things. For instance, when he heard about Toyota’s $50-million stake in Tesla Motors, he scoffed at the official line on the deal, dutifully reported in the press, which held that the Japanese giant wanted to learn how to build electric vehicles from the tiny kiosk of a car company.
Instead, Kuttner sees Toyota wanted to unload its factory in Fremont, California; Tesla has nothing to teach Toyota, because the latter’s engineers know the numbers don’t add up on EVs. Tesla, backed by the government, can deal with the UAW.
Kuttner has the most beguiling way of leading into his statements. “I suspect it’s worth more than the X Prize,” he says of the Very Light Car’s patented in-wheel suspension. He prefaces his assertions with courtly admonitions. “You must understand that at 100 mpg equivalent the electric cars are putting out 200 g/mi [of CO2] against our 75,” he writes in a e-mail.
“Win or not, we feel the innovations we have—we have something to offer the automobile industry,” he says. “We like to think what we’re doing is very feasible.”
Later: “We have no business doing this, second-guessing the auto companies.”
And: “We may be a mouse, but we might as well roar.”
He explains, “We really have the capacity of a large car company.” A team of around 20 suppliers in several states has worked closely with Edison2 in the Very Light Car’s development. “Very quickly, the firm with 10 or so guys working away in the factory becomes a firm with the resources of over 60 of the world’s better specialists and the facilities to back this up.
“That fact puts this program on the same level as a high quality R&D program at a real quality manufacturer.”
He thinks the Very Light Car has a future beyond the X Prize and envisions some sort of flexible manufacturing operation.
During the conceptual stages, he and design chief Ron Mathis thought hard about the VW Beetle and the Citröen 2CV. “The way the world is shifting, we should be thinking of something like that.”
Then he mentions Wall Street’s race to market electric cars.
“You cannot build the future on magic.”
He inveighs against miscalculations in energy accounting.
“The answer is to figure out how to use less, sooner.”
What happens when the established manufacturers finally understand that electric cars won’t meet performance targets?
“We are the Plan B for how to deal with CAFE.”
To describe the Very Light Car, he develops a metaphor about chasing a carrot, namely, the $10 million purse in the X Prize. But instead, through the various innovations the Very Light Car incorporates, Edison2 found “nutrients in the soil.”
He says the modularity of the IKEA kitchen designs was an important source of inspiration. So was an entirely new calculation, one that must have derived from his and Mathis’s experience in sports car racing.
“Reimagining the way the forces travel in the car” was the breakthrough. “Once you grasp that, a whole new architecture [results].”
The Very Light Car could even be a useful EV platform. “I think, the way we’ve approached it, we might have a method that’ll actually stick.”
He believes Edison2 has “stumbled on something big.”
And he reiterates: “Edison2 is a team that has physics on its side.”
It wasn’t a great time for a real estate developer like Kuttner to chase after an automotive breakthrough, he has told a Lynchburg business magazine. But he sees the X Prize as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Telling me that he likes to push things out to the edge, he confesses that on some days he has no money.
“There are days when we make decisions where we throw hundreds of thousands of dollars into the recycling bin. Those days are hard. It is the only way to reach the top of the mountain though.
“You can not imagine how much an endorsement from an experienced and smart person like you means to me when often I am trying to reinvent myself and keep finding money.”
One of my colleagues, Robert Cumberford, has already commented after a previous entry:
“I love what they have done, and what I expect will happen in the end, unless there is some America’s Cup-type cheating to hobble them. They are on the Only True Path, the one I have tried to follow for about 60 years: Lightweight, low drag. It’s the only way.”
Kuttner says, “I’m doing the part that I luckily fell into, to do. I don’t think I’m any better than anyone. But I’m not afraid to step forward.”