Rick's Red-hot Tango
By Bill Moore
Ever since Spokane, Washington-based CommuterCars unveiled the Tango several years ago to the EV world, the narrow little two-seater has continued to generate buzz within the battery electric car community, especially after it started trouncing speed-demons like the Dodge Viper. But what is even more intriguing is the concept actually started out more than twenty years, not being powered by common lead-acid batteries, but by a fuel cell. But where the giant car companies have spent hundreds of millions developing their "green" cars, CommuterCars has spent just half a million and created a sensation in the process.
So, why does a man with a highly successful digital pre-press business, whose customers include the Getty Museum and the University of California Press, devote his time and modest personal fortune to building not just an electric car, but a distinctly different kind of EV?
Woodbury told me that his quest to become the "Henry Ford" of the 21st Century began while sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic in Los Angeles 25 years ago. He looked around him at all the four and five-passenger cars carrying just one person to work while taking up vast amounts of valuable land. (Forty percent of metropolitan Los Angeles is paved).
"I think most people regard traffic like a disease you might have that you think is incurable, so you accept it and try to forget about the pain of it. But if you really think about what it's like to be in a traffic jam, its not very nice and people don't like it."
So, Woodbury began a search for a cure; a tall, narrow vehicle that would effectively double the capacity of the world's major highways by allowing two vehicles to share a single lane. The driver would ride up front with space for a single passenger behind him. The car would be powered by a hydrogen fuel cell of some type, so it would be non-polluting, as well.
Of course, a tall, narrow vehicle would be prone to tipping over, so he began toying with the idea of "ballast" like a sailboat that would keep the vehicle upright in turns. His research led him to the concept in the early 1970's of using heavy metal hydrides to store hydrogen in tanks placed low in the vehicle to give it stability, a notion that is again gaining currency. [See "Hydrogen-Powered Prius First Step to Cleaner Future"].
The idea of a hydrogen-fueled commuter car would begin to take tangible form after Woodbury's son wrote a paper in college entitled, "Hydrogen: The Perfect Fuel." Woodbury senior took this paper to his local utility, which was experimenting with fuel cells and would eventually become Avista Labs. He told me that the utility folks led him to believe that if he'd build the automobile, they might provide him with a free fuel cell to power it. So, encouraged by their response, but also having little faith in batteries, Woodbury set out to build his tall, narrow commuter car, using batteries initially to power it and provide the "ballast" that would later be replaced with metal hydride tanks and the fuel cell stack.
In order to raise money for the project, Woodbury sold his sailboat and bought a used Fiat "Spyder" that had been converted to electric drive. He said he threw away the body and kept the drive system and suspension which would serve as the initial platform for what would eventually evolve into the Tango.
The idea was to create a car with room for two that could be parked like a motorcycle. It would be three feet wide and seven feet long; short enough to park in a space no wider than the average passenger car. Woodbury explained that he arrived at his original dimensions by measuring from the center of his family's Subaru at the time to the outside of the door frame, a distance of 18 inches. He doubled this to 36 inches or three feet. The length was determined by the width of a standard parking space, similar to the European smart car from Germany.
Woodbury has coined a term for his vehicle design; UNV or Ultra Narrow Vehicle. He actually has legislation pending in the state of Washington to create a special classification for it.
While the notion of putting two vehicles side-by-side in the same lane might seem uncomfortable for many, Woodbury said that he's driven for miles at 70 mph next to a motorcycle to test the concept and neither he nor the motorcycle driver felt at all uncomfortable in this situation. He also points out that if enough of his vehicles take to the roads, they probably won't be driving next to each other, but will, more likely, be staggered somewhat.
"You wouldn't want to sit side-by-side with another vehicle, even in heavy traffic," he commented. "You still double the capacity of the highway, even without being side-by-side."
According to Woodbury there are reasons today why you'd want to own a vehicle like the Tango, especially if you live in California where "lane splitting" by motorcycles is perfectly legal. What this means is that motorcycles can share the same lane and they also can maneuver between lanes. Drivers in California will often find themselves stuck in traffic jams where the only thing moving are motorcycles that can weave between the stalled cars. The practice is also legal in Europe and Japan, though it isn't in the rest of the United States. He also notes that a Honda Goldwing motorcycle is actually five inches wider than the Tango.
Woodbury said that he has lane split all over California and asked nine different policemen at the recent LA Auto Show about the legality of doing this in a vehicle like the Tango. Eight of the nine said they didn't have a problem with it. The ninth and dissenting officer spent most of his time behind a desk, Woodbury noted.
The advantage of being able to lane split in a Tango can have very important economic advantages in places like San Francisco and Los Angeles where time is money, as he would later explain when justifying the $85,000 price tag of the vehicle.
Woodbury spent a part of his early career working for a Porsche dealership in Beverly Hills and learned the importance of performance and "bragging rights" for high-end customers. That's why, from the outset, he decided to focus on making the Tango anything but your stereotypical electric "golf car."
He's not only equipped the prototype Tango with the best of everything from its seats to its leather dash to its top-of-the-line stereo system, but he's given it sizzling performance; something you'd never expect out of a vehicle that more resembles a flounder than a shark.
The Tango incorporates twin, nine-inch DC electric motors, each of which has more than 500 foot-pounds of torque, which is more than a pair of Dodge Vipers. He boosted, with good reason, that he can "light up" 10 inch racing slicks with 1,100 amps of power, which is just over half of the amperage available from the battery pack.
Woodbury demonstrated the power of the Tango by taking on the steepest hill in San Francisco, a daunting 30% slope, with his brother in the back seat. Hills are typically EV-killers, but in this case the Tango proved up to the challenge.
"The thing shot up like it was shot out of a canon," he remarked. "We've got enough torque to pull hills without any trouble and to basically get out of anybody's way. It's got... the performance of a motorcycle, despite the weight of a full-sized car."
With relatively-inexpensive lead-acid batteries, the Tango can "comfortably" go sixty miles on a charge, which can be extended with careful driving to 80 miles. He's not calculated what the car would do if equipped with more powerful, but lighter lithium ion, noting that he'd probably have to add some lead to keep the car's handling characteristics.
As for the promised fuel cell, it never materialized and while he'd love to have one, he said the cost is just too prohibitive. "People complain about lithium ion, try fuel cells," he told me, adding that Ballard is the only company he's ever invested in and while he's seen the stock rise and fall, he's confident that fuel cells are the future.
In the meantime, batteries can provide most commuters with all the daily range they need, though current technology really limits their use in larger family-type cars.
Besides performance, Woodbury has engineered -- with the help of some of the world's leading automotive engineering firms, including Lotus -- a lot of safety into the car. The Tango incorporates a NASCAR-style roll cage and four-point, airline pilot's safety harnesses. He compared the four steel door side beams of the Tango to the single, unattached one found in a large SUV his company took apart. He said that while most people will find this hard to believe, they would actually be safer in the Tango than in the SUV, if the two ever collided.
When he debuted the car at the 2004 LA Auto Show, he was surprised at the response he got from a two-page survey he conducted. Nearly three hundred people responded and of those, 57 percent said they would "definitely" prefer driving a vehicle like the Tango over what they currently drive, while another 41 percent checked "maybe" box.
But who'd spend $85,000 on a car like the Tango, I asked? He replied that was the next question on his survey, but first he said he needed to define the car. In his survey, he asked how much people would be willing to pay for a carbon fiber car with performance and interior amenities equal to or superior to top of the line sports cars from Ferrari and Lamborghini. He told EV World that the prototype car is equipped with the very best from its 400 watt Nakamichi sound system to its Sparco, Formula One racing seats.
What he learned was that a small set of people would be willing to buy the car at this price and typically they would be people who own or collect high-end vehicles. But he noted that they are also usually high-salaried people whose time can be worth $100 a hour. He calculated that if the owner saved fifteen minutes during his or her commute everyday because they can access HOV lanes, lane split and drive down the middle of lanes like motorcycles, that's $50 day at a minimum.
"He's just paid for it in five and half years," Woodbury calculated.
Include into this equation parking, which in San Francisco will cost $50 a week for a Tango compared to $250 a month for a full-sized car, and the savings begin to mount.
How many can he sell is still an unknown, but he is taking orders; and he's confident that once the car starts to appear on the road, interest will begin to build as people start bragging about it.
"We want them on the cover of auto magazines. We want them to beat a Ferrari 360 around Laguna Seca or some major race track. When we've done that, the automotive press will like it, despite the fact that it's electric."