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‘Revolutionary’ Ultra Light Car Aims for an X Prize

August 25, 2010 at 6:47 PM EDT
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Could a new ultra light car that promises to get 100 miles per gallon change the way we drive? Judy Woodruff reports on a group of mechanics and engineers who want to change modern day cars and win the $5 million X Prize.

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight: the story of a small band of engineers and mechanics trying to change the cars we drive.

Judy Woodruff has that report.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In the heart of rural Virginia, Lynchburg is 600 miles from Detroit. But inside this converted textile plant, a handful of car enthusiasts are working on what they claim is a revolutionary new energy-saving automobile, one that gets 100 miles per gallon.

OLIVER KUTTNER, founder, Edison2: A leap in efficiency that’s really a tripling or a quadrupling, that is a pivotal moment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A real estate developer who has owned and driven race cars, Oliver Kuttner and his team didn’t initially set out to change the cars we drive. They just wanted to win $5 million.

OLIVER KUTTNER: Dangling a big carrot is what — what did it. It’s the money. And once we started digging, we learned a lot. And it is not the motivating force anymore.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The goal for Kuttner’s team: to win the Progressive Automotive X Prize, with the main focus to design and build a car that seats four passengers, gets the equivalent of 100 miles per gallon on average in all driving conditions, and can travel at least 200 miles without refueling.

It is the latest in a series of X Prizes that aim to spur innovation by offering a lot of cash. The first X Prize was for a viable vehicle for commercial spaceflight. Currently, the national fuel average for new U.S. cars is 32 miles per gallon. By 2016, government rules will require 37.8 miles per gallon.

OLIVER KUTTNER: Initially, we were convinced, like the rest of America, that it had to be an electric or hybrid solution. We think that the real efficiency must be from the efficiency of the car itself, as in the chassis and the aerodynamics. And, as such, we have taken a completely different approach.

JUDY WOODRUFF: With the focus on electric power, Kuttner named his team Edison2. But they quickly realized today’s batteries were too heavy, even an impediment to reaching their goal. Racing veteran Ron Mathis is the team’s chief designer.

RON MATHIS, chief designer, Edison2: There is so much propaganda out there about how wonderful these cars are. As we began to do the numbers, we just began to see it differently.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What happened?

RON MATHIS: We — we looked at the facts. And the facts told us that very lightweight was one of the keys to — to real automotive efficiency.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, they came up with the Very Light Car, which was just that, very light. It weighs under 800 pounds, compared to the average car now on the road, which is over two tons. Instead of batteries, their car is powered by an ethanol-based gasoline. Its diamond shape is meant to maximize aerodynamics and optimize fuel-efficiency.

RON MATHIS: We don’t waste energy accelerating it and we don’t waste energy keeping it at a cruising speed. It’s — because it is light and because it has such very low drag, it is just very easy to push. The fact that you can do is what makes it efficient.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But such a light weight raises safety concerns.

OLIVER KUTTNER: Safety is certainly the biggest hurdle.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kuttner’s team answers from a race car perspective.

OLIVER KUTTNER: We used a lot of the technologies you would expect in an Indy car or Formula 1 car to protect the passengers in our car. By having the suspension inside the wheel, we create all this other distance that become impact-absorbing structure.

In a normal car, all that is taken up by rigid suspension parts. In our car, it essentially becomes a pillow. And this pillow is what saves you your life.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Still, on American highways with 40 ton trucks and SUVs hurtling at speeds over 60 miles an hour, the Very Light Car looks very vulnerable.

MIKE STANTON, Association of International Automobile Manufacturers: We want to maintain the safety of the vehicle, so you — you have a balance there with downsizing vs. down-weighting vs. safety. So, that is a real important balance that you have there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mike Stanton is president and CEO of the International Automobile Manufacturers Association.

MIKE STANTON: When you are producing a vehicle for mass markets, there are some concerns that you have that you might not have on a one-of-a-kind or two-of-a-kind vehicle. It has got to be affordable, but you look at aerodynamics, which was a big part of it. You look at the light-weighting. I think we are going to see some light-weighting, continued light-weighting, in the vehicles of tomorrow. The — the issue that we are going to have is we’re going to have to maintain and improve safety as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: These are questions Kuttner lives with, as he has grown his ambition, from the X Prize to mass marketing an efficient car of the future. He believes the public is ready for change.

OLIVER KUTTNER: We are willing to take a leap, jump to a completely different model of a car and let it walk before it can run. There is no doubt in my mind that, when the General Motors of the world work on a car like that for 10 years, they are better cars than what you can buy today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Indeed, with its unusual shape and exterior wheels, the Very Light Car looks very different from anything on the road now. How much of making a car is going in the direction of what consumers are used to, and how much of it is getting consumers to come in your direction in order to — to make, frankly, a greener car, a more economical car?

OLIVER KUTTNER: I think that is both. I think this can be built almost identical to what consumers are used to. But then you pay a price. You might get 70 miles per gallon, or 80.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Instead of 100?

OLIVER KUTTNER: Instead of 100. Or you can build an extreme, ecologically friendly car, and you can probably get to 110 or 120. But that is the limit. So, it is a new envelope. It is a new range. And we have the same thing today. You can buy a Prius and get 50 miles per gallon, and you can buy a Chevy Suburban and get, you know, 14. It is your choice. And people make that choice every day.

JUDY WOODRUFF: With that in mind, Kuttner has focused on two other factors — first, cost. They want to sell the car for $15,000 to $20,000.

OLIVER KUTTNER: We always wanted to build a cheap car, because the only car that can really make an impact on our world is a car that people can afford. I mean, our entire engine transmission unit costs less than most electric cars’ batteries, by far. So, we can probably deliver an entire car for the price of some of these battery packs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, second, domestic production — the Very Light Car has been entirely made in America, a fact the Kuttner team argues was crucial to their success.

RON MATHIS: It is all very well having stuff made in China, but when it comes to making a prototype, you need it made just down the street, because you need it, like, today, tomorrow, at the latest, next week. This is one of the reasons we are in Lynchburg, is that there is still a legacy of manufacturing industry here, and that enables us to do lots and lots of things.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, first, Edison2 has to win the X Prize, which they have chased all the way to the finals — 111 teams from 11 countries started out in January. And, as the last stage is now under way, Kuttner’s team is the only one left in the four-passenger category. Still, they will have to continue to meet the prize requirements to win. Their Very Light Car got the equivalent of 110 miles per gallon in the final track tests last month in Michigan, and Edison2 is confident they will prevail.

OLIVER KUTTNER: I think we’re, with almost 100 percent certainty, on that track. I think I can say that comfortably. What I can’t tell you is if there are going to be, in 10 years, four million of these a year sold or — or 40,000. But you can be sure that this idea is not going to be stillborn. It is — it’s too good and it is too right and it works too well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For now, the Very Light Car heads to a lab for its final evaluation. The X Prize will announce if Kuttner and company win in September.