Company Has High Hopes For Its Electric Car

The Tango, made by Spokane, Wash.-based Commuter Cars, has a range of about 50 highway miles per charge but runs a high price between $108,000 and $148,000.

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — A shiny red car, skinny enough to fit two side-by-side in a highway lane, drew curious onlookers last year as it sat in the River Park Square atrium.
The owners of the electric-powered Tango had parked the prototype vehicle downtown to mark a showing of the 2006 documentary ''Who Killed the Electric Car?'', which later included the auto in its DVD release.
But to Rick Woodbury, president of Spokane, Wash.-based Commuter Cars Corp., the electric vehicle isn't yet condemned to history's wrecking yard.
''I don't think that the electric car is even slightly dead,'' Woodbury said. ''It just hasn't begun yet.''
The road to offering the Tango as a viable mass-produced car, however, has taken a few twists for Woodbury, 58, and his 7-year-old company. The business has run on fumes while he proves his version of a high-performance commuter car that's powered by electrons, not fossil fuels. And the company faces increasing competition from relative newcomers, such as California-based Tesla Motors Inc., which is backed by more than $100 million in start-up money.
With support from a Google Inc. founder and 10 orders for models expected to cost $108,000 to $148,000 each, depending on the battery system, Woodbury's company could be on its way to carving out its niche.
''We're never really in danger of going out of businesses or anything; we've just kind of been on embers,'' Woodbury said.
The company boasts its existing prototype two-seater Tango is 5 inches narrower than a Honda Goldwing motorcycle and has a range of about 50 highway miles per charge. The latest models are designed to travel farther per charge, accelerate to at least 60 mph in 4 seconds and reach top speeds of about 130 mph, according to the company.
Advocates of electric cars tout them as cleaner and more efficient than gas-powered vehicles and as a way to reduce dependence on foreign oil. Notable attempts to mass-produce electric vehicles, such as General Motor's EV1, have fallen short.
Five years ago, Woodbury envisioned tapping angel investors to inject $1.7 million to get the 3,000-pound, patented Tango into production. He projected the first cars would sell for at least $45,000.
Today, Commuter Cars has built two models — including a black one for actor George Clooney — and each has cost far more. Woodbury estimates it would take $50 million to realize more affordable versions.
Woodbury's customer list includes Google co-founder and billionaire Sergey Brin, who has ordered three Tangos. Most clients have shelled out a deposit of least $90,000 for a kit car using Lithium-ion batteries. Brin, also an investor in Tesla Motors, gave $250,000 to Commuter Cars for development of a new battery pack, Woodbury said.
Although Commuter Cars has received infusions of capital, Woodbury said he hopes to build the company on profits instead of making promises to investors that he can't keep. Woodbury's other business, Integrated Composition Systems Inc., helps keep the company afloat.
''There's a very good possibility that once we've delivered these 10 cars, since many of our customers are billionaires, that we just ask them for more money,'' Woodbury said. ''But I think it's premature to ask for money right now because let's just prove we can do what we promised with what we've got and do it profitably.''
Woodbury plans to deliver the first of the batch to Google Senior Software Engineer Jorg Brown, who advanced $60,000 without even taking a test drive.
''I really, really like the ability to find parking spots when there don't seem to be any,'' Brown said. ''To squeeze past cars at a stoplight when I otherwise wouldn't be able to.
''And other than the size, the big draw is not supporting Big Oil and all the ecological damage and terror that comes with it.''
The newest Tango sat in the Commuter Cars shop on East Sprague Avenue recently, awaiting its electrical innards and other components.
While the Tango is a ''very high-performance car, and it's a great idea,'' high-end buyers might choose the Tesla Roadster because it resembles a more standard sports car, said Steven Lough, president of the Seattle Electric Vehicle Association.
''It's hard enough to change people from gasoline to electric,'' Lough said. ''But then you're asking them to embrace the narrow car idea, two cars to a lane, that's another jump.''
Tesla Motors has filled its waiting list for the 2008 model year, but would-be customers can pay $5,000 to get on the 2009 waiting list. Tesla Roadsters start at $98,000, and the first batch is expected to come off the assembly line early next year, according to news reports.
''We can just barely afford to put these out at this price right now,'' Woodbury told a group of Google employees last year. ''It's a very slow, painstaking process when you don't have tons and tons of capital behind you.''
Unlike some electric-vehicle evangelists, Woodbury, a high school dropout who's worked in industries from selling Porsches to real estate, doesn't believe humans are causing global warming.
The inspiration for the Tango came while Woodbury sat in Los Angeles traffic.
Driving a Tango ''would give you more flexibility than a gasoline-powered car in any crowded city,'' Woodbury said, adding it can charge up hills from a standing start and back in to small parking spaces.
''In San Francisco, if you had a choice between this and a car, it would be like the choice between a car and a motor home,'' he said.
The company sold one to Clooney, an environmental advocate, two summers ago. At the time, the company planned to sell Tangos for $85,000. Clooney still uses the Tango to avoid L.A. traffic on the way to a set or studio, said spokesman Stan Rosenfield.
After a British company hired to build the car took nine months to complete it, six months longer than scheduled, Woodbury decided to return home to Spokane.
''I said, 'I don't care what we do. We're just building them ourselves, if it's just me and my son, that's what it'll be,''' Woodbury said. ''If we get more money, we'll obviously hire people.''
Commuter Cars hired a contract engineer more than a year ago, and he's since redesigned almost the entire car, Woodbury said. The company even bought a tube-bending machine to form Tangos' steel roll cages.
''That whole car really had to be reengineered from the ground up, or it wasn't going to be easy enough to manufacture and certainly not profitable,'' Woodbury said. ''We still have probably a good $85,000 in parts and labor in the car or more, and we're still finding out because it still hasn't been completed yet.''
Woodbury envisions delivering all 10 cars within roughly six months.
Customer Keith Logan, a former Windows NT program manager for Microsoft Corp. who drives an electric-powered Volkswagen Rabbit, wants to ditch his current two cars for a Tango, he said.
''I think it's a great-looking car,'' he said. ''The car I've got now, because it wasn't designed as an electric car, the performance is pretty mediocre and the range isn't what I'd like it to be in hilly Seattle.''
Once people see Tangos and Teslas on the street, they will realize they don't need the ''added complexity'' of hybrid vehicles, Logan contended. Even his current car gets the equivalent of about 80 miles to the gallon, he said.
''It's weird to me to go to a gas station,'' Logan said. ''It's just the most bizarre experience.''
On a recent trip to Coeur d'Alene, Woodbury parked the Tango at a gas station to recharge. Only instead of stopping it at the pumps, he pulled inside the convenience store to plug it in.
The Tango takes an hour or more to recharge, depending on the type of outlet used, Woodbury said.
Although major car makers are taking the ''slow path'' toward electric vehicles, Brown said, ''they might get there first because they understand true high-volume manufacturing.
''The federal safety laws are pretty onerous, and require destroying 10-15 cars in order to pass,'' Brown said. ''And (Woodbury) needs to pass those if he doesn't want to be stuck selling a 'kit car,' since as a kit car he'll not likely sell more than a few dozen each year.''
Woodbury claims the Tango contains more steel than a Ford Excursion and has the rollover balance of a Porsche 911. Tangos offer safety harnesses like those used by pilots.
''I'm very confident that it's going to be a safe daily driver for me,'' Logan said. ''I'm going to take my daughter to school in it and around town in it. I just look at how much engineering they've done.''
While customers said they have been patient, they're eager to get their hands on Tangos.
''There's an old saying in the (Silicon) Valley, 'Sometimes you have to shoot the engineers and ship the damn thing,''' Brown said. ''Rick keeps wanting to make it a little better.''
Woodbury expects to soon begin engineering a cheaper kit car. He sees Tangos eventually being allowed into carpool lanes, or even given their own skinny lanes.
''This is a ridiculously expensive car,'' Logan said. ''I'm happy to be an early adopter because I'm able to.''
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