Building a Car That Can Go 100 Miles on a Gallon of Gas

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Nov. 5 2013 7:45 AM

The 800-Pound Car

How do you build a car that can go 100 miles on a gallon of gas?

Oliver Kuttner and the Edison2
Oliver Kuttner and the Edison2.

Photo by Ronald Ahrens

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.

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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. Car-wise, 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.

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. It’s here that a team is trying to win the $10 million prize the X Prize Foundation has announced it will give to anyone who could build a safe, mass-producible car that could travel 100 miles on the energy equivalent of a gallon of gas.

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. “General Motors and BMW and Ford, they all have light-weighting programs,” he 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 eight hundred pounds when finished. The lightest car on the market, the Smart Fortwo, weighs 1,800. 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.”

The thrust of what he’s saying is pretty intuitive. And also kind of refreshingly un-gadgety. 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.

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