Wednesday, August 23, 2006

An Electric Car Unlike Any Other

By Jesse A. Zirwes and Matthew de Paula

Rick Woodbury and son Bryan have a plan to dominate the global automotive market with a revolutionary electric vehicle the width of a motorcycle that has more torque than a Bugatti Veyron 16.4 and can outperform many sports cars. With one complete car made and sold so far — to George Clooney, no less -- they need about $50 million to jump-start large-scale production at their start-up firm, Commuter Cars Corp.

“The plan is to put 150 million of these cars on the road within 15 to 20 years,” said Woodbury, who speaks with infectious enthusiasm. “I’m not saying this will happen overnight; I’m saying it will happen gradually.”

Spokane, Wash.-based Commuters Cars, which Woodbury runs with his son, already builds and sells the Tango T600 -- actually, father and son build the car themselves pretty much by hand. It costs $108,000 and doesn’t meet federal crash regulations, though it does comply with race-car safety regulations designed to protect drivers in crashes of up to 200 mph. The T600 is sold as a partially assembled kit in order to skirt federal safety regulations. It ships 95 percent complete; Woodbury arranges sale and delivery of the remaining 5 percent and will even fly wherever needed to bolt it together -- though it's not too difficult for the mechanically inclined to do themselves using the included manual, he said.

“Our car is 39 inches wide, making it the narrowest car in the world, yet it has stability akin to a Porsche 911,” said Woodbury, who raced 911s for car dealership Beverly Hills Porsche Audi, where he once worked. The slender T600 doesn't look stable, but the weight of up to 25 batteries used to power two electric motors sitting four inches off the ground all but cement the tires to the road. It has a maximum range of 80 miles and can be fully charged from a standard home plug outlet in three hours.

Gridlock No More

The idea for the Tango's mix of car and motorcycle attributes came to Woodbury decades ago while crawling along in L.A.’s highway gridlock. He noticed that there was only one person in almost every car and decided that doubling the road capacity for all of those single occupants by using lanes and cars half as wide as normal would solve the gridlock problem, not to mention reduce pollution and fuel consumption. "The government could just draw a line down an already existing lane and make two Tango-size lanes," he said. The T600 is designed to have more clearance on either side of it in a six-foot-wide lane than a tractor-trailer does in existing 12-foot lanes.

George Clooney bought the first T600 last fall during production of Ocean’s Twelve after reading about it in a magazine. At publication time, two others were being built for clients whose names Woodbury wouldn't disclose.

In order to crash-test and get two less-expensive, more basic models into production -- called the T100 and T200, which should retail for $18,700 and $39,900, respectively-- the Woodburys are looking for a $50 million infusion to create full-fledged engineering and production facilities. To prove there's a viable market to would-be investors, they're using the Commuter Cars website to secure fully refundable deposits for future Tangos: $10,000 for the T600, $1,000 for the T200 and $500 for the T100. So far, they've amassed 75 deposits for Tangos since they began taking orders online a couple of years ago.

The seminal T600, which seats two in one row, would seem to hold a particular appeal to residents of L.A., where "lane-splitting" -- driving down lane dividers in backed-up traffic -- is legal. More than half (57 percent) of the 280 people that Woodbury informally polled at a recent L.A. auto show said that they would drive a Tango in order to avoid traffic jams.

Usually lane-splitting is reserved for motorcycles, but the T600 is narrow enough to fit between two lanes of cars. In fact, at 39 inches wide, it's actually narrower than Honda's beefiest cruiser motorcycle, the Gold Wing, which is 44 inches wide. Another advantage to the slender footprint is that the Tango can be parked in small spaces usually reserved for motorcycles, including perpendicular to the curb, where laws allow.

Faster Than A Corvette

Don't be fooled by its modest size and alternative powertrain: The T600 can out-accelerate a Porsche Cayman S from a stop. Woodbury said it has shamed many sports cars at local Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) meets that test a car's handling limits through a challenging, twisty course.

Though only 8.5 feet long, 3.25 feet wide and five feet tall, the Tango T600 weighs a stout 3,057 pounds, which is more than a Honda Civic. The batteries account for a thousand pounds, and without them the car would be more tip-prone than an SUV, which the two Woodburys discovered the hard way when testing an early Tango prototype.

"We had two of us in there; my son hung a fast u-turn and hit a gully at the same time and over we went," the elder Woodbury said. "We decided, 'Well, we need more ballast.'" His use of nautical terms such as "ballast" hints at the Woodburys’ foray into yacht building -- a hobby that equipped father and son with steel-welding skills to build the Tango T600's frame and roll cage as well as seed capital from selling boats they built. “We started an automotive company with less than $50,000,” Woodbury said.

Each of the T600's rear wheels is driven by a direct-current electric motor that cranks out a stout 500 pound-feet of torque at low revolutions per minute and redlines at 8,000 rpms. These motors are used in forklifts and in vehicles at airports that load and lug baggage. They're mated to direct-drive transmissions, so there's no gear shifting involved.

To put the T600's power into perspective, consider that the million-dollar-plus exotic Bugatti Veyron 16.4's outrageous 16-cylinder engine cranks out 922 pound-feet of torque versus the T600's total of 1,000 pound-feet.

The T600's upper limits of performance haven't been officially tested, but judging from other drag-racing cars that use similar electric motors -- yes, people actually drag race electric cars and there's even a National Electric Drag Racing Association -- Woodbury estimates the T600 can bolt from zero to 60 mph in four seconds, sprint through a quarter-mile in 12 seconds and reach a top speed of 130 mph. That's Ferrari and Corvette territory and couldn't be further from the kind of performance most people expect from an electric vehicle.

“If you had to race across L.A. for pink slips with any other car in the world, this thing would blow its doors off. Nothing can touch it except a motorbike,” Woodbury said, mustering his usual Donald Trump-like penchant for hyperbole. Imagine Vin Diesel racing Paul Walker in a skinny Tango T600 instead of a 1969 Dodge Charger in the film The Fast and the Furious.


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