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Va car-building team has eye on the X-Prize

When the X-Prize Foundation hands out awards Thursday to teams that built a new breed of super-efficient cars, the Lynchburg-based Edison2 team expects it will take home the $5 million prize.Then the contest will be over. But the race has just begun, Edison2 leader Oliver Kuttner said.It's a...

When the X-Prize Foundation hands out awards Thursday to teams that built a new breed of super-efficient cars, the Lynchburg-based Edison2 team expects it will take home the $5 million prize.

Then the contest will be over. But the race has just begun, Edison2 leader Oliver Kuttner said.

It's a race to perfect and commercialize a car that will travel more than 100 miles on one gallon of gasoline. Whoever wins that race will have a patent and sell a lot of cars, Kuttner said.

"If we develop an expertise where we just know how to deliver a better car that's the one you're going to sell," Kuttner said. "Getting this design part right is more important than everything else. And it's about a lot of money."

Kuttner's team of engineers plans to buy an empty factory and turn it into an incubator for super-light, efficient vehicle technology. There, they would perfect their Very Light Car and get it ready for commercial production and American roads.

If Kuttner has his way, that facility would come to central or Southside Virginia, possibly making the region the center for future large-scale manufacturing of the new vehicles.

"If we can get the design part right in Virginia, then I can see Virginia becoming the light car capital of maybe the world," he said.

Kuttner has been best known for turning factories and other buildings into apartments, restaurants and retail shops in Charlottesville and Lynchburg. But when the Progressive Insurance Automotive X-Prize contest offered $10 million in prizes for teams that could create extremely low-pollution cars, he switched gears.

Kuttner assembled a team of engineers, mechanics and machinists to develop the Very Light Car β€” which weighs just over 700 pounds and has an aerodynamic design resembling the front of a jet.

They built four prototypes for the X-Prize contest. Originally there were more than 111 teams in the contest, and 28 teams with a total of 36 cars made it to the on-track competition stages.

Winners will be announced Thursday morning in Washington, D.C.

Two of Edison2's cars are the only ones left in the running for the $5 million prize for a four-seater car.

Winning that money depends on the results of the X-Prize Validation Stage, consisting of laboratory analysis after the finals stage in July. But the two Very Light Cars left in the contest had their engines ruined before they arrived at Argonne National Laboratory for the tests.

Steve Wesoloski, director of technical operations for the contest, said the cars were being driven for an X-Prize test when the test drivers shifted to an incorrect gear. They were not accustomed to the prototype gear-shifting pattern, he said.

Fortunately, Edison2 had sent the cars to another Environmental Protection Agency-certified laboratory for testing before the finals stage. X-Prize allowed Edison2 to submit those test results.

"We took a look at that data, had another third party look at the data, and used that as the validation," Wesoloski said.

Winners will not be notified of their status before Thursday's awards ceremony, but Kuttner is confident his team will win because he believes the test results meet the contest's standards. "We did everything they asked for. We met every threshold," he said.

A $5 million boost would help support Edison2's continued work on the car. The team also is recruiting a few more private investors and getting more money from its private investors. "We have the money, and we have the investor willpower to keep going," Kuttner said.

The next step is to grow the team from 12 to about 40 full-time people and get a larger facility where workers can develop and further test the design.

Kuttner said Edison2 is looking at several abandoned factories in Campbell County and Pittsylvania County, as well as sites in Michigan and Ohio. Now is a good time to set up shop because factories are empty and equipment is cheap, he said.

The factories they are looking at range in size from 170,000 to 650,000 square feet, he said.

The team is seeking help from the Virginia Tobacco Commission to keep the operation here. Sarah Capps, grants program administrator for the commission, said Edison2 has submitted an application for a research and development grant. A commission subcommittee will review the application in October. A decision on the grant probably would not come until next year, she said.

Kuttner wants to stay in Virginia. He likes living in Charlottesville, and he said some suppliers, such as Valley Fasteners in Lynchburg and Brown's Machine Shop in Rustburg, are very valuable to the car's operation.

Although Detroit has been the capital of the U.S. auto manufacturing industry, Virginia could emerge as a new leader in the field, he said.

"Our car is such a departure from the normal that we really don't have to be where other cars are made," Kuttner said.

Jonathan Whitt, executive director of the Region 2000 Technology Council, was excited to hear that Edison2 would like to grow within the region. It would capitalize on the region's ability to manufacture.

"I think if he's successful and decides to stay in Virginia, it'll be a big win for the commonwealth," Whitt said.

In a larger facility, Edison2's growing team would build one prototype after another, experimenting with different chassis designs and engine sizes. The Very Light Car was built with a one-cylinder engine, but the team is preparing to install a three-cylinder Smart Car engine to see how well it would operate.

The body design needs to change before it can be road-ready. For one thing, it needs bumpers. Kuttner would like to see a wider windshield.

Some of the changes might decrease the gas mileage, but Kuttner said he envisions Sport Utility Vehicles getting 80 miles per gallon and smaller cars getting more than 100 miles.

Kuttner said the key is to perfect the design and eventually partner with someone who has the expertise to manufacture a million cars.

In Edison2's current shop in a former textile factory on Kemper Street, the team has already started that perfection process. They have built the chassis for the next Very Light Car, which Kuttner believes will be the first that they run through a crash test. There will be a lot of cars after that one.

"We are working on the next generation of this car, and it will be one generation closer to a car you could buy," said Ron Mathis, Edison2 chief of design. "We've got a really, really good car. There's a lot of work left to do, but we're doing it."

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The News & Advance is published in Lynchburg.

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