This Wright's Flyer Is Electric
By Bill Moore
Mounted in the two seat cockpit of Wrightspeed X-1 electric car is a g-meter to measure acceleration. How many cars, electric or otherwise, do you know where you want to know how much the force of gravity is pushing you back in your seat?
But that's exactly the kind of car New Zealand native and electrical engineer Ian Wright has wanted to build for along time, but not just another monster horsepower, nitro guzzler. There are more than enough of those in the world. But one whose only pollution comes from its smoking tires.
While his former employer, Tesla has grabbed much of the media's attention with its distinctive 'Black Star' Roadster and impressive funding by various Silicon Valley titans including Elon Musk and Google's Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Wright has also garnered a respectable amount of national publicity, as well, which he hopes to someday in the not too distant future parlay into his own brand of high-performance electric car.
Wright has always been interested in such cars, but he told EV World that it wasn't until recently that battery technology made the kind of car he envisioned feasible.
"The batteries haven't been good enough until quite recently to make an interesting car," he said. "I looked at it years and years ago... with lead acid batteries and you do the numbers and it doesn't really pan out.
"I've always been interested in performance cars and when the batteries and motors are good enough that you can build a really interesting performance electric car then I think that's too interesting to resist."
Wright's vision of the kind of electric car he wants to build differs from Tesla in that he sees his former colleagues focused on ultimately building affordable energy efficient vehicles while he is focused on driving performance up and "selling performance cars."
He explained that when he looked at the numbers, he realized that it's hard to make a good, cheap electric car.
"In the X1 prototype there is $40,000 worth of batteries. There you see you're not going to be able to sell a car for $35,000."
Like vehicle safety features on cars, everyone wants a more energy efficient vehicle, but no one wants to pay for, he added.
"On the other hand, people quite happily pay for performance if you give them enough of it."
Wright also contends that the U.S. small economy car fleet (vehicles that get 35 mpg or better) only represents some 0.7 percent of motor fuel burned on a daily basis.
"You can save as much fuel by improving a 10 mpg car to 11.1 mpg as you can by improving a 50 mpg car to 100 mpg. So, that also leads me to say, let's focus on the gas guzzler end of the market and the easy way to get into that is in performance cars."
Competing for the Electric Performance Car Market
While there are other emerging EV performance cars, led originally by AC Propulsion's t-Zero, Wright believes that to be successful, a range-limited EV has to offer performance that is dramatically better than gasoline-engine competitors. He points out that while the t-Zero's 0-to-60 time is 3.6 seconds, its 0-to-100 time is around 10 seconds.
"The X-1 does 106 [mph] in 8.6 seconds. It puts it into very rare territory..." The only car quicker, he noted, is the Bugatti Veyron at $1.4 million. Just as amazing, Wright pointed out that high performance cars represent something like an $9 billion market in the U.S. alone.
"Electric drive systems have this very nice property that there's no trade-off between performance and efficiency. If you're building [gasoline/petrol] engine cars and you want to make them go fast, then they are going to be thirsty. There is no way around that. And if you want to make them really efficient, they're going to be slow; and there's no way around that. But that's not the case with electric drive systems. There really isn't any trade-off."
Wright said that his X-1 prototype is faster than anything short of the Bugatti, but he still gets the equivalent of 170 mpg.
"If I took three-quarters of the power out of it, it wouldn't be anymore efficient than it is now. It might even be worse."
X-1's Atom Chassis
The chassis of the X-1 prototype seems the epitome of minimalism, a sort of zen approach to a race car. In actuality, it is called the Atom and is built by Ariel Motor Company in Somerset, England. Wright has long admired the vehicle and struck a deal with the company to buy a glider around which he could develop his X-1. Besides offering the lightest road car chassis available, the Atom has another advantage: it can be registered and licensed in California... but only as long as it's electric. A gasoline engine model would have a difficult time passing California EPA emission standards.
He explained that regulations allow him to build a one-off car for himself, which only has to meet California emission standards, but when he decides to sell them to the public, the car immediately comes under federal jurisdiction and must be subjected to federal motor vehicle safety standards, which includes extensive and expensive crash tests. He added that while the Atom is a very strong chassis, because it has no "crumble zone" to absorb some of the energy in a crash, the g-forces to which the occupants would be subjected would simply be too high.
Because Wright wanted to develop the X-1 quickly and relatively cheaply -- he estimates he's got about $150,000 of his own money in it , plus countless hours of labor, both his own and volunteers -- he bought virtually all of the car's components "off the shelf". And when he looked around for the kind of motor he wanted, he said there was only one choice, the 236 hp drive system and inverter built by AC Propulsion, the same folks who developed the t-Zero and the new eBox. The only thing he designed and built himself was the lithium ion battery pack, the stated goal being to optimize the power to weight ratio. The complete system weighs 538 pounds, stores 25 kWh of electrical energy and can deliver 436 volts at 600 amps peak.
"It's a bit of a different take on the battery system than anyone else has done," he stated. "The maximum I draw from it is about 300 hp."
When asked about driving range, he replied that he can get about 100 miles in typical Silicon Valley driving situations -- balls out or dead stopped. Speaking of stopping, the AC Propulsion system comes with adjustable regenerative braking, so Wright can pretty much drive using just the accelerator: he's set his to 3.5 Gs. When he lets off the juice the car immediately begins to slow as the car's kinetic energy is converted back into electric power and stored in the battery.
"That's enough so that you can do all your normal driving in traffic without ever touching the brake."
While he wouldn't go into detail, Wright did acknowledge that he is looking beyond the X-1 to a more "mainstream" electric car design, one Ariel Motors has agreed to help design.
"The guiding principle will be for future model cars [is] we're still aiming to replace high fuel consumption cars. If we can replace 10 mpg cars with 100 mpg equivalent that's very good from our point of view. And as far into the future as I can see, there will always be a performance aspect to it. He also admitted that he is working on his own, improved drive system, which is pretty hard to imagine since the current ACP unit already accelerates the X-1 at an amazing 0.9Gs, definitely shoving you and your passenger back in the seat. Unlike a gasoline car where you have to shift when you reach various RPM limits for that particular gear, in the X-1 you keep your foot down and the car keeps accelerating.
"You're doing 60 mph in 117 feet; and 100 mph comes up very quickly."
Wright said that 1,500 pound car is not only quick, but equal agile. In an upcoming segment on the Discovery Channel in May, Wright demonstrates the car on a local NASCAR track, pulling 1.41Gs laterally, in the process. He said if you're wearing a helmet, you can definitely fell the strain on your neck.
The X-1's blistering performance and the general resurgence of interest in electric cars, has resulted in Wright getting a lot of highly visible media exposure, the Discovery Channel episode being just one venue. But how has that translated into orders?
It hasn't because Wright told EV World that he's not in a position to take any orders; there are various regulations against, he said. But it has generated huge public interest in the car and improved his credibility with potential investors.
"That's getting closer," he commented cryptically.
He's also learned valuable lessons like the time he took a friend for a ride in the car and when they'd returned, the friend told him, "Ian, this is too much car for the average person." A couple weeks later this was underscored with what could have been tragic results when another friend, who drives a Porsche Turbo, let the X-1 get away from him, slamming it into a power pole.
'I was sitting there as a helpless passenger and thinking, you know, Bruce is right, this is too much car for the average person."
The lesson learned? Wright said he'll have to engineer in much better stability controls. At my suggesting, he agreed that he might offer two keys -- like the Segway -- one for when your teenage daughter drives the car and one for when you hand it over to a professional race car driver.
I asked Wright to give me the short version of his investor sales pitch and he pointed out that Wrightspreed is a "Clean Tech" investment and that ultimately his company's products will save America one billion gallons of fuel annually. He added that the company is developing its own high performance drive system based on an innovative approach not pursued by anyone else.
So, how soon might you expect to get your hands on the successor to the X-1? Maybe in two years and around $120,000.
Be sure to listen to our entire 28-minute interview by using either of the two MP3 players at the top of the page or download the file to your computer for transfer and playback on your favorite MP3 device. The download URL is: http://www.evworld.com/evworld_audio/ian_wright.mp3