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Va developer hopes to revolutionize auto industry

The Very Light Car designed and built by Edison2 a company led by Lynchburg developer Oliver Kuttner recently won the $5 million Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize after demonstrating its ability to travel farther than 100 miles on a single gallon of gas.The car, designed and built in...

The Very Light Car designed and built by Edison2 a company led by Lynchburg developer Oliver Kuttner recently won the $5 million Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize after demonstrating its ability to travel farther than 100 miles on a single gallon of gas.

The car, designed and built in Lynchburg, also had the lowest greenhouse gas emissions in the competition.

For Kuttner and his team, however, winning the X Prize is just the beginning. Kuttner believes his company's Very Light Car has the potential to revolutionize the auto industry, vastly reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil and spark economic growth in parts of Virginia that have been hit hard by the decline of the manufacturing sector

Q. Now that Edison2 has won the X Prize, what's next for the company and the Very Light Car?

A. What's next is refining what we have, making it more consumer friendly, bringing it into full compliance with the law and to do all that without giving up the levels of efficiency we've managed to achieve.

Our single biggest obstacle is to make the car a very safe car (despite) its low mass. There are certain types of accidents where we will be able to make the car into a very, very safe car, but there are other sorts of accidents where the car will be challenged.

The challenge in front of us is to refine the design and really figure out how to create a very good level of safety with a low-mass car. We have some good ideas about it, but it's going to take a lot of money and a lot of development.

We are hoping to make this into a public-private partnership. We're going to try to get some public funds to help us with the work. We're also talking to an insurance company about it, who is interested in being essentially the founding father and supporter of this.

Q. How long do you think it will take before Edison2's designs or innovations make their way to the public?

A. I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that some of what we're doing is starting to make its way to the market. We are, with certainty, being taken seriously and being discussed at R&D labs around the world. Not all of them, but in some of them.

There is a dialogue between us and at least two companies right now. But there are certainly people studying what we're doing, understanding it and making decisions based on what we did.

We clearly pointed out that going to a friction drag car has big implications. I am certain that within five years, you are going to start seeing cars with pronounced fishtails. That's going to be a direct result of what we did.

Now, as far as when does Edison2 as a company and its investors see the fruits of that? That's a more difficult question and I don't know the answer.

We are influencing the future of the automobile. But it's not always the guy who points out that there's an opportunity who reaps the benefits because this is a business of giants. We're just mice.

Q. What, if anything, do you think might keep Edison2's innovations from being embraced by automakers?

A. The single biggest roadblock is the consumer and I don't think it's really a roadblock. I just think it's a design challenge for us to tackle and succeed. Our cars are a strong departure from the ordinary. Part of what we're going to be doing is marry the virtues of our cars with something that's a little more ordinary. A lot of it's going to depend on our skill at doing that. I don't think there's a roadblock; it's just called work.

Q. What do you think will drive consumer demand for a car such as yours?

A. The big trigger on our car will not be the fuel costs. (Although) if the fuel costs go up, our car gets super charged.

When you buy a Toyota Prius, you're already not spending a lot of money on fuel. So when you buy a car like ours, when you pay half as much for fuel, you're only saving half as much of a relatively small bill.

The gas price, I think, is only partially a consideration. The other consideration is CO2 emissions.

I think that especially the younger generation is really becoming aware of pollution and wants to do something about it. Our car is brutally about the lowest emissions in both production and use. If you look up the emissions tests results from the X Prize, every time they measured emissions, our car was emitting the lowest level of CO2 of all the cars, over all the electric cars.

So we are holding the key to the cleanest car, both in production and in execution and I think that's becoming a meaningful thing. I think at least half of the 1 million people who bought a Prius when the fuel costs went up did it because they wanted to be clean, not just because they wanted to pay less in fuel costs.

Q. You've said the Very Light Car and its innovations could spawn a whole new industry. What might that mean for the economy of Central and Southside Virginia?

A. I think it's enough of a departure from the ordinary automobile that it could literally be the beginning of a whole new Detroit.

Detroit has lost assembly plants, but Detroit has not lost the research and development for the automobile. In America, automobiles are designed, prototyped and tested in Michigan. The high-paying, quality jobs in the auto industry are all in Detroit.

Our project is such a rescaling that it can be in a whole new location. It could literally become a second type of automobile industry that could live in parallel to the original automobile industry. It's enough of a departure that we do not need Detroit.

What it could mean for Virginia, if Virginia does embrace it and I am successful in convincing some of these companies to move their really innovative engineers down here to work with us, then what I'm proposing now this little technology park with 50 people in it could eventually grow to having 500 people or 5,000 people and spawn a whole new industry.

These would be good jobs, high-paying jobs that create intellectual property and that create competitive advantage over other countries. We could therefore actually create something that is not only good for Virginia but good for the United States.

I really believe that if we do this right, it could be like a little version of Silicon Valley.

Q. President Obama has accelerated mandatory fuel economy standards for new vehicles to be 39 mpg for cars and 30 mpg for light trucks and SUVs by 2016. This would be 40 percent higher than current standards. Given the nation's challenges of dependency on foreign oil and climate change, do you think Obama is going far enough?

A. Carl Pope, who is the head of the Sierra Club, was quoted in the L.A. Times that if we can do 100 mpg, then CAFE standards need to be 60. He's right, but he's not right in the immediate future because there's no such thing as modifying cars to 60 mpg. Actually, the real truth is there's no such thing as modifying cars to 35 mpg. It's not going to happen, and 2016 is right around the corner.

So I think the present target is realistic, but I also think we have to keep pushing the target.

You can take a lot of mass out of a passenger car. But you can't take that much mass out of a pickup truck that can also tow a 10,000-pound trailer. You can't do it. There are certain limitations to physics. So the 60 mpg pickup truck's never going to happen. But the 130 mpg commuter car can happen.

But you've got to work your way slowly there because the 130 mile-per-gallon commuter car is creating an environment where every single tool in that factory is obsolete. You can't just go in a matter of a couple years and ask the industry to make a complete flop. It can't be done.

Q. Do the higher CAFE standards present an opportunity for Edison2?

A. I think the new (fuel economy) standard by 2016 is our best friend. Presently, the automobile industry believes they're going to achieve it by selling hundreds of thousands of electric cars. We're not convinced there are that many buyers for those cars. And if the car companies can't sell those cars in those quantities, they're going to have a hard time meeting those numbers and they're going to come talking to us.

In a few years, we're going to be a very hot commodity. Right now we're just an interesting commodity. But in three years time, we're going to be a very hot commodity because somebody is going to have to put their eggs in some basket of some electric car that is not selling and they're going to realize they're going to have a problem. If we, at that point, sit there with a car ready for production, with a car that works really well, then we'll have something very, very good to offer.

They're all chasing the electric car. We're chasing the efficient car. And that's alright with us.


Information from: The News & Advance,

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