Saturday, June 27, 2009

Tesla Motors and Lightning Hybrids: Two New Car Companies Worth Keeping an Eye on

In 2006, a three-year-old startup called Tesla Motors ( introduced the world to the Tesla Roadster, an all-electric, two-seat sports car that could go 0-to-60 in under 4 seconds, had a range of 200 miles, and was powered by about a zillion lithium-ion batteries just like the ones in your digital video camera. The Tesla Roadster only costs $101,000, and they sell so fast you can't even find one on a showroom floor.

Tesla recently announced its second model, the Model S, a sedan with a 0-to-60 time of 5.9 seconds, still a breathtaking time, especially for a family car that seats 7. The Tesla Model S sells for about $50,000, half the cost of the Roadster. I wouldn't turn down either one of them.

Tesla Motors is unique in that it's not located anywhere near Detroit, St. Louis, or any of the other traditional automotive manufacturing locations in the U.S. Its headquarters is in San Carlos, California, in the northern borders of Silicon Valley. Tesla Motors is an American company, but its components come from Germany, Norway, and the UK, as well as the USA. If you see any similiarities between the Tesla Roadster and the Lotus Elise, that's intentional: Lotus won a competition to design and build the Roadster's chassis, among some other parts.

Tesla Motors has been around long enough that it has gone through its share of intrigues, shakeups, and lawsuits. The founders have been kicked out of the company and the current CEO is Elon Musk, the South African genius behind PayPal. Dealerships are popping up in big cities nationwide, in preparation for the release of the Model S.

We wish Tesla well, and we wish we owned a Tesla with its carbon fiber body, kick-a$ acceleration and all-electric drive train. Maybe one day. In the meantime, there's another new player in the game.

In January 2009, an "automotive research and manufacturing company" based in Loveland, Colorado, calling themselves Lightning Hybrids (, quietly announced that they were developing a hydraulic hybrid automobile. They showed their concept car at the Denver Auto Show in April 2009, and had their prototype driving around the streets of Loveland in June 2009.

Lightning Hybrids hosted an open house on Friday, June 26. It was an invitation-only event, but everyone was invited, and you had to RSVP in order to find out the location. Several hundred interested guests crowded into their "garage" in downtown Loveland, to get a look at the prototype and the facilities, and to listen to the founders and employees of Lightning Hybrids talk with excitement about their creation.

The prototype is a model called the LH4, the "4" meaning "four wheels." A second model, called the LH3, is already in prototyping as well. The LH3 is a unique design in that it only has one back wheel. It's a tricycle that runs backwards. (I assume that the front wheels will be for both steering and propulsion, as research at Stanford and MIT has shown that a configuration like this with rear-wheel steering is inherently unstable.) Both the LH3 and LH4 will be 4-seaters.

The hydraulic hybrid propulsion system is analogous to the more well-known (think "Toyota Prius") electric hybrid propulsion system, with a hydraulic motor/pump and 5000-psi reservoir taking the place of the electric motor/generator and battery bank. The hydro hybrid system is 50 percent more efficient than the Prius' electric hybrid system, and it delivers enough horsepower to give the car the same kick-a$$ acceleration as the Tesla vehicles have been posting.

The LH designers have been fanatical about keeping the gross vehicle weight below 1000 pounds -- that's right, only 1000 pounds. (Or was it 1800 pounds? Help!) Like the Teslas, the LH cars have carbon-fiber bodies. The LH designers went the extra mile (sorry) to tweak the aerodynamics of their cars. The LH4 has only three body parts: the hood, the canopy, and the pan. The carbon-fiber pan gives the car a smooth undercarriage to reduce turbulence and drag in the boundary layer between the car and the road. The hood is the entire front half of the car -- no fenders, and no seams. The clamshell canopy opens and closes on hydraulic lifts, like an aircraft canopy or some of the futuristic concept cars from Ford and GM in the 1960s, so there are no doors, doorknobs, or door seams. Digital cameras take the place of side-view mirrors, and windshield wipers and radio antenna are recessed, retractable, or molded-in.

The result is a very slippery car that gets 100 miles per gallon in both city and highway. In the city, the hydraulic motor does most of the work, with the German-made Audi biodiesel engine only turning on to assist with heavy acceleration. On the highway, the high mileage is thanks to the super-efficient Audi engine, the lightweight construction, and the low-drag design.

LH plans to keep manufacturing costs low by buying off-the-shelf parts wherever possible. In a dark corner of the garage is the shell of a Mazda Miata resting on four jack stands, looking like something that was abandoned on a New York City street and stripped by, um, entrepreneurs for anything of value. Its dashboard, airbags and climate control system are now part of the LH4, as are key components of its suspension and steering.

Every component of the hydraulic system came out of somebody's online catalog. The (bio)diesel engine, as I mentioned, is a crate engine from Audi. Other key automotive components will be stock parts, purchased from other automakers or their suppliers. The only full-custom parts may very well be the body panels, window glass, and headlamp/taillight lenses.

In 2010, LH will expand into a manufacturing facility in Loveland, Colorado, large enough to employ 300 people and turn out 10,000 vehicles in the first year.

But at $39,000 and $59,000 respectively, the LH3 and LH4 may end up being LH's loss leaders. The company may end up making their real money on a couple of other product lines. First, they will sell an LH hydraulic hybrid retrofit kit for existing fossil-fuel-only vehicles. It wasn't clear to me if they will sell directly to manufacturers or to aftermarket garages (like Shelby, for instance). Second, they have applied for a $74 million economic stimulus grant to commercialize a plug-in hybrid electric (PHEV) drivetrain developed at Colorado State University. Even though their market niche is hydro hybrids, they have the expertise to do PHEVs as well, and it's too good an opportunity -- a local university, partnering with a local company -- to pass up.

When the Big Three were the Big Three and gas was cheap, independent automakers didn't do very well. Nobody remembers the Bricklin anymore, and the DeLorean only lives on as a time machine driven by Michael J. Fox. But the world has changed. Today, the Big Three are the Struggling Two and a Half. Gasoline is no longer cheap and plentiful. Maybe the market is finally ready for something different.

Sign me up. I'll take one of each, please.


Risto said...

Good and interesting article.

I have been following the current development of American auto makers and markets with great interest as sort of an outside observer (I'm European). I have found many funny details in how the consumers have behaved and how legislation around this area has been formed.
Example: a V8 Mustang (admittedly a muscle car but not that bad in terms of fuel economy) comes with "Gas guzzler tax" but a Tahoe (or any similar SUV) does not have that burden. Guess which one has better gas mileage...

Then there's the situation with diesel cars in the U.S. Many modern family cars in Europe can do 50-60mpg which is practically as good as a Prius but with more simple and cheaper drive train. Yep, diesels generate some particle exhausts but that problem has been practically solved. The biggest problem is the bad quality diesel fuel and probably also the legislation in the U.S.

Another thing is that I found the few small cars available in the U.S. to be quite clumsy looking and downright unattractive. Their European (and some Japanese as well) counterparts have vastly better styling and better engines. A typical 1.4 liter turbo engine moves a small family hatchback quite briskly but can still reach 50mpg easily.

Finally I would add the Fisker Automotive to your list of interesting new car makers. I hope they succeed, partly because their Karma model is supposed to be manufactured in Finland in a factory that currently makes Porsches.

Zyzmog said...

I agree wholeheartedly with all four of Risto's points.

One of the reasons for the inconsistency with the "gas guzzler tax" is because SUVs (well, most of them) are considered trucks, not cars. Trucks play by different rules in the U.S. and they're exempt from a lot of the regulations that cars must comply with. That's why a Tahoe gets charged less than a Mustang.

As Risto points out, America seems to have ignored the clean, quiet and fuel-efficient small diesel engines that are so successful in Europe. When American automakers put a diesel in a vehicle, it's usually as a replacement for the mammoth V8 in an oversized pickup truck, and therefore tuned for maximum raw power rather than cleanliness or fuel efficiency. American automakers have the technology; they've just chosen not to use it or market it. As a result, we get strange market measures such as this: in 2007, Toyota sold more Priuses in the U.S. than Ford sold Mustangs, or than Volkswagen sold Volkswagens, and there's not even a domestic challenger to the small diesel cars Risto talks about.

Risto points out rightly that most small cars designed in America are ugly. (That's not the word he used; he was being kind.) Maybe that's why the auto dealers put them on the back of the lot instead of up front. European and Japanese (and Korean!) designers have shown us, time and time again, that small cars can be fun and don't have to be ugly.

As for Fisker Automotive, they're worth keeping track of ( Their U.S. headquarters is in Irvine, California, about as far away from Detroit as one can get. The Fisker Karma is a four-door sportster, powered by a PHEV drive train developed by partner Quantum Technologies. The Karma goes from 0 to 60 in 7.8 seconds in Stealth mode, and 5.8 seconds in Sport mode. In Stealth mode, top speed is 95 mph and gas mileage is 100 mpg (sorry, U.S. isn't metric yet). Fisker plans to turn out 15,000 Karmas per year, with a price tag of $88,000 each.