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Think You Could Build a Sweet 100 MPG Vehicle in 2 Years? (These Guys Did.)

Jason Fagone takes us inside the $10 million race to accomplish a feat Detroit won't touch.

| Fri Nov. 1, 2013 3:00 AM PDT
X Prize contenders prepare for the Knockout phase of the competition.

Out next week, journalist Jason Fagone's new book, Ingenious: A True Story of Invention, Automotive Daring, and the Race to Revive America, takes us for a ride-along on the fringes of efficient vehicle design, as dozens of rivals compete for a share of the 2010 Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize's $10 million purse. Their holy grail: a (relatively) safe and practical long-range vehicle that can get 100 mpg or the voltaic equivalent.

Ingenious

With his keen eye for scene and character, Fagone follows a handful of contenders, from a scrappy Virginia startup to some endearing Illinois barnyard tinkerers, to a talented crew of West Philly high schoolers as they run into (metaphorical) roadblocks en route to the finals. In addition to hearing their eye-opening takes on transportation, and learning what goes into creating a radical new vehicle—from scratch, in many cases—we drive away with a deeper perspective on Detroit, whose staid modern offerings, by and large, have barely bested the mileage of a Model T.

Fagone had some interesting things to say about the great race and what came of it—you can read our chat here. But first for a taste of the book: The following excerpt, courtesy of Random House (which includes the Crown imprint) introduces us to one of Fagone's most effusive and enjoyable characters, Oliver Kuttner, whose unique strategy involved building a gasoline car so lightweight and efficient that it makes your Prius look like a Humvee. Enjoy the ride.

*****

One of Edison2's creations. Courtesy X-Prize Foundation

 


The Abyss of Lightness


Lynchburg, Virginia, March 2010 — Oliver Kuttner digs into a pocket of his jeans and plucks out something metallic that he raises up to the light. He places it in my outstretched hand.

"Two-tenths of an ounce," Oliver says.

The object is an inch-long piece of pale aluminum with a hexagonal shaft and a circular ring. A lug nut. A lug nut holds a wheel to a car. Carwise, you can't get more fundamental than a lug nut. It feels as light as a cough drop.
 "Cool, right?" Oliver says, beaming.
 He takes a step backward and studies my face for a reaction.

Oliver is an imposing figure, 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, with large green eyes. In college he rowed on the crew team—the five seat in an eight-man boat, the brute shoveling coal into the furnace. His white-collared shirt says Edison2 above the heart, and his slightly bulging stomach pulls the shirt taut where it's tucked into his jeans.

Hydraulic hoses snake up the walls like vines, and sparks from a welder sizzle onto the lacquered pine floor.

We're in a workshop. White walls, no windows. The building used to be a Dickies jeans factory, years ago, and this is a lightly renovated patch of the old factory floor—a large, high-ceilinged, squarish room. It smells a bit like a scorched metal cooking pot. Layers of noise: blasts of power tools, snippets of conversation, a radio playing quietly underneath.

Over on the far wall, next to a trash can full of curlicue-shaped metal shavings, a man in safety goggles is bent over a metal lathe. Its whine overpowers the chatter of the nearby mechanics, who are dressed all in black. I can't really figure out what's going on; it's like there are pieces of three or four different types of companies smushed into this one room. Depending on where I look, I see a hip architecture firm, a race shop, a used-car dealership, or a machine shop. Classic sports-car posters hang on the walls next to 3-D computer drawings the size of architectural blueprints, and not far from the guy at the metal lathe, two men type on laptops at desks. Hydraulic hoses snake up the walls like vines, and sparks from a welder sizzle onto the lacquered pine floor.

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Flickering in my peripheral vision are the Edison2 cars themselves, four of them, spread across the floor in various stages of assembly. Three are still just frames of steel tubing, lacking bodies. The fourth, clad in silver-colored fiberglass, looks like a real, drivable car. The car's profile changes drastically according to the angle of view. From the top, it's roughly a diamond. From the side, it's a bird skull with a pointy beak. From the front, it's Darth Vader's pentagonal helmet. The wheels are housed inside pods that jut out from the body. The engines—small, extensively modified motorcycle engines that run on gasoline—are mounted in the back instead of the front.

Oliver turns to a nearby storage rack, where he picks up a length of aluminum pipe—another small, humble car part. He tosses the pipe in the air and catches it with a smack. "It's just stupid," he says.

"Stupid light?" I ask.

Oliver nods vigorously. He starts talking about how much money he has spent to make these parts. They're all custom, he says; almost nothing in the car has been bought off the shelf. His engineers designed the parts from scratch and had them machined out of billets—solid blocks of aluminum and steel. "It's the only way you can do it without building casting molds," Oliver says, "and casting molds are quite expensive." In the future, he says, when he goes into production and makes 10,000 of each part at a time, the cost will go down. A $50,000 wheel will become a $200 wheel; a $65 nut will become a 20-cent nut.

Each of the four cars now under construction in the Edison2 shop will weigh less than 800 pounds when finished.

The nut is significant, he explains, because it weighs one-tenth to one-third of a typical nut. I gather that Oliver wants me to appreciate the extravagance of how much money he has spent to shave off such a miniscule amount of weight. There aren't a lot of lug nuts on a car—16 to 32, depending on its size. His custom lug nuts might reduce the overall weight of the car by a pound or so. But the fact that he would go to the trouble of reinventing the common lug nut just to shave off a measly pound shows how far he's willing to go to prove a concept.

"General Motors and BMW and Ford, they all have light-weighting programs," Oliver says. "In the process, they figure out how to take 3,600-pound Corvettes and make them into 3,400-pound Corvettes, which is a good thing." The major automakers can make cars lighter around the edges. But each of the four cars now under construction in the Edison2 shop will weigh less than 800 pounds when finished. The lightest car on the market, the Smart Fortwo, weighs 1,800 pounds. Oliver has taken lightness to a new extreme. He says he finds this idea hard to get across to people just learning about the car, because the automakers have "poisoned the water" with their lax commitments to lightness.

"Imagine being in the '20s, and an airplane company says, 'We're going to go to space,'" he says. "And other people say, 'We're already going to space, we fly up to 6,000 feet.' You have to explain that what you're really doing is actually going to the place where there's no gravity." Oliver adds, "For most people it's very difficult to understand until you hold something like this," and nods to the lug nut in my hand.

Every once in a while, you come across the sort of supremely gifted salesman who only needs a few minutes to drag you into his orbit like a rogue sun. Oliver strikes me as one of these guys. He obviously knows how to split the world into people who get it and people who don't and to make you want to stand on the side of the angels. I'm sure he's pressed lug nuts into dozens of hands before mine. (I learn later that he carries around up to 20 lug nuts at once; whenever he leaves for a conference, he runs over to the shelf and reaches into the lug nut bag and stuffs them into his jeans and jacket pockets, forcing the mechanics to scrounge for lug nuts to put on the cars.) But even as I'm thinking this—trying to stay skeptical, trying not to get swept up by the momentum of the pitch—I'm also thinking that the thrust of what he's saying is pretty intuitive. And also kind of refreshingly ungadgety.

The less mass, the less force you need to accelerate it. Isaac Newton's Second Law of Motion.

Lightness! A cardinal virtue of human vehicles going back to the covered wagon, the chariot, the dogsled. Others interested in shaping the future of the car like to talk about electric vehicles, hybrids, charging infrastructures, upgrades to the electrical grid, and Google's prototype robotic cars, which are so smart they can drive themselves. But Oliver seems to be after something more fundamental. Use any type of energy you want, he says—gasoline, electricity, hydrogen, compressed natural gas—but make the car light, very light, and you're ahead of the game. Simple physics. The less mass, the less force you need to accelerate it. Isaac Newton's Second Law of Motion.

At first, this is what I think Oliver is getting at with the lug nut: He has made a superlight car, therefore a superefficient car (even though it runs on gasoline, not electricity), and he has done it by making a bunch of custom superlight parts—not just the light lug nut but all these other parts on the racks of the shop. Light hubs and light bearings, light wheels, light shifter knobs, light seat rails. But the story turns out to be more complex than that.

Because if you took all these light parts and put them into a normal car, it wouldn't work. The car wouldn't be strong, wouldn't be safe. Oliver's car can be 800 pounds because it has a unique and somewhat alien architecture that allows it to be that light. The big idea, the major piece of new technology, is a custom suspension—the part of the car that controls vertical movement, absorbing bumps and giving you a comfortable ride on potholed roads. In a normal car, the front and rear suspension takes up a lot of space, the various components sprawling out horizontally and vertically. Oliver's engineers have figured out how to confine the mechanism that allows for vertical travel fits entirely inside the wheel, along with a damper and the brake.

No company has ever used in-wheel suspensions as the starting point for a new kind of car.

This may sound like a minor change, but it's not. The suspension is one of those things in a car that other things are built around, determining the course of the overall design, bounding its potential. It is to a car what a river is to a city. Edison2 yanks up the river, reroutes it, and builds a new city on its banks. In-wheel suspensions have been tried before, in limited ways, but no company has ever used the technology as the starting point for a new kind of car.

Putting the suspension in the wheels eliminates the need for a lot of the structure, the steel you'd normally need to enclose the suspension and to attach it rigidly to the rest of the car. And once you eliminate those structures, the other pieces of the car can be lighter. Imagine you're a 300-pound person who goes on a diet and loses 100 pounds; you can suddenly get by with a lighter chair, a lighter bed, thinner floors. If it were biologically possible, you could redesign your ankles. The fact that one piece of the car is light means that the next piece can be light, and the next piece. And when Oliver and his team go to assemble the puzzle of the car, fastening lightness to lightness, they end up with something so elemental, so irreducible, that Oliver feels it's explicable only by a sort of Zen koan: "The car is light because the car is light."

He calls it the Very Light Car.

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