The $10 million contest of the century is, in the end, virtually uncontested. Either Edison2 wins the $5 million mainstream category of the Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize (designed to stimulate development of cars with the equivalent of 100 mpg) or nobody does. The two remaining entries in the category are both made by the team, which has a goal nothing short of changing the world (or at least the auto part of it). Edison2 wants to make “The Volkswagens of the 21st century” — and millions of them, too.
Edison2, based in Virginia, has considerable racing experience, and it drew on its track time to produce the “Very Light Car,” an ultra-lightweight aerodynamic pod with outrigger wheels. Any resemblance to an Indianapolis 500 car is hardly coincidental — their direct inspiration was the Stutz Black Hawk that went for the Land Speed Record at Daytona Beach in 1928.
Actually, Edison2’s cars could take home more than one prize. In the alternative tandem class (passenger behind driver), the company is duking it out with a motorcycle-in-all-but-name, the Swiss-entered X Tracer. Edison2 vehicles are almost a third of the remaining field of 12 teams and 15 entries.
Edison2’s cars are ultra-cool, and a tribute to the team’s admirable commitment to conserving weight at all costs. With a 250-cc engine running on E85 ethanol, it’s hardly surprising that the Edison2 betters the contest’s goal of 100 mpg with 111 mpg in the combined cycle, and 129 mpg on the highway.
Edison2’s cars are not “mainstream” in any way we’re used to thinking of that term. They look more like airplanes without wings. But Oliver Kuttner, the company’s CEO, is convinced he’s found the future of the automobile. The track cars weigh 800 pounds with a heater, air conditioning and a stereo. A roadgoing version with a low-cost steel or aluminum body, he said, might weigh 1,000 pounds (less than a third of even a small car today).
Kuttner, who is not lacking in self-confidence, says his goal is not to become an automaker, but an advisor to one. In that regard, Edison2 has its head on its shoulders. It sees itself not as a whole enchilada car company, but as a partner whose role will be reducing weight, complexity and cost. In that role, it could be very effective — especially in cutting Detroit bloat. “History is littered with people who tried and failed to start a car company,” said Kuttner (pictured right with Ron Mathis, Edison2's chief of design). “We don’t need to repeat a mistake.”
The company’s mantra will be that today’s cars are aerodynamically hopeless, and the road forward is with airplane-like rounded cabins whose outboard wheels are on struts. “The direct angle car has been developed as far as it can go,” he said. “The numbers don’t lie: When you use a traditional McPherson-type suspension there are a huge number of load points, and that dictates a heavier chassis. Our design means a smaller chassis, smaller components and you end up with a positive feedback loop.”
The Edison2 has a certain resemblance to the Aptera 2E battery car, an X Prize contender and would-be production model whose entry into the market was stalled when development funds ran out. But Kuttner says, “Three of our cars weighed as much as one Aptera, and we have double the interior space.” But he has “nothing but respect for Aptera,” because it follows the same general aerodynamic concept. “It’s a different concept, though,” Kuttner said.
As you may recall, Amory Lovins imagined such a consumer-friendly vehicle as the Hypercar. He thought it would have a composite body (as do the competition versions of the Edison2) and be powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. You’d be able to drive it across the country with loose change. Lovins invested money into a prototype, but the daunting economics of getting a car to market eluded him, as it has so many others.
But Kuttner dismisses the Hypercar, too, because it relied on expensive composite bodies that would jack up the price. The Very Light Car is going to be cheap. How else could it turn out to be the Volkswagen of the 21st century?