Home > Uncategorized > Day 2, Part 2: Honesty

Day 2, Part 2: Honesty

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I stood in the shade behind the Xprize team garage at Michigan International Speedway and listened to Edison2’s team leader, Oliver Kuttner. In all directions black asphalt broiled the air mugging our lungs. But Oliver barely noticed. Forever brooding, he snaked through a maze of subjects: the political and manufacturing climate for new car platforms, the voodoo tech of vanquished Xprize teams, setbacks for Edison2, the upcoming tests at Argonne labs, and strategies for Tuesday’s Xprize race.

The team garage is around 150 feet long with rows of garage doors on the  north and south sides. There is no air conditioning. Since my arrival the 16-foot doors have been open to keep teams from stifling in the cavernous interior. Separated only by folding tables and tool chests, Xprize teams have worked in clear view of one another and Xprize staff. It’s a community of competition and collaboration. Whatever can be hidden from a rival team remains close to the chest; the rest is open to inter-team problem-solving, which isn’t happening at Aptera. They’re located twenty yards behind the garage under a large canopy tent hooked to the side of a rented semi-trailer.

I watched over Oliver’s left shoulder as the Aptera team quietly rolled down the walls of their tent, smothering the technicians working inside. Oliver remained face-forward. A former racecar driver, he’d already caught it in his peripheral.

“You know, we’re not supposed to do any major shit [to our vehicles]. It’s not cooler in there. They just eliminated the breeze.” Aptera steamed for several minutes in their sealed tent, and Oliver continued as I recorded him, saving my brain to ferret out the obvious: Aptera had a waiver in transparency granted, for unknown reasons, by Xprize officials.

“Now nobody here is innocent,” Oliver confessed. “Everybody has done something here or there that might be on the edge, but we’re all in the gist of doing good technology.” It’s a subject he’s broached before — the need for Xprize to let teams innovate and wring the potential from their cars so they can deliver new efficiency benchmarks to science and the automotive world.

Hands emerged under the Aptera tent and rolled the walls up. I excused myself and walked over to take a look. Inside the 40×30 structure mechanics and engineers swarmed a curvaceous three-wheeled vehicle. It’s a seductive car in person, almost female in form with endless sweeping lines. In 2006, founders Steve Fambro and Chris Anthony shaped the hull to the limit of aerodynamics for a side-by-side passenger car. In 2009 they left the company, and the internet buzzed with speculation.

Word was, vehicle re-design had shifted far enough from the founders’ vision of low-mass, low-drag as to cause lethal friction between themselves, the board of directors and new management.

I walked to the back of the car and noticed the large belly panel, removed and lying on the ground, was not composite like the rest. The armature around the single rear wheel was more crude than I’d imagined. I lowered the camera and took a photo I knew Aptera wouldn’t approve.

A technician immediately requested I keep it to myself. “You kinda caught us with our pants down,” he said, “and there’s some tech we wanna keep under wraps.” I agreed (later discovering the photo revealed nothing) and stood up to see a new figure lounging in a chair nearby, Paul Wilbur, the current CEO.

Paul rose to greet me. “It’s a piece to our air-conditioning system,” he said. Amicable and engaging, Paul led me on a tour, discussing the finish of the car, features, challenges, changes and the many times they’ve pulled the car apart since arriving at Xprize. “We don’t really need to win the competition. For us it’s the development and if we can achieve our own objectives, we’re fine….’cause we said overall EPA cycle we wanna be at 200 [mpg equivalent]. And if we get that and we don’t win to a covered motorcycle then we’re OK. We’ll still have the most efficient car in the world.”

During our extended conversation, Paul Wilbur was a verbal version of the rolling tent walls; his word selection and cadence served like a well-intentioned smokescreen, obscuring the reasons for Aptera’s middle-of-the-pack performance. Always polished and political, both he and Marques McCammon, his head of marketing, appeared to focus every action — verbal and non-verbal — on spin and image. No team is immune to some level of factual fog. But to me Aptera, the Xprize bully of funding, seemed like the Xprize wimp of humility and honesty.

We wound down our discussion just as two men arrived with parts. Mark bellowed a greeting. The components they delivered looked nothing like minor parts or fittings, and the team was quick to whisk them into the complex underside of the car.

Later, I stood with Paul Wilber and Marques McCammon under the steel skeleton of an old shade tent next to vehicle testing. The heat of the day had finally dissipated, and the mountainous bleachers of M.I.S. threw a long shadow over the infield. Paul Wilbur managed two pull-ups on the steel frame and bragged about Aptera’s team bicycles. “We use those to get around our factory. They’re really nice. That’s a driveshaft, and those are pneumatic tires.” I couldn’t help but wonder how a fleet of expensive bicycles made it into the budget of a car struggling to stay in the Xprize and a factory yet to be tooled for production.

An Aptera bicycle whizzed by. I followed it and walked up to another three-wheeled competitor, the TW4XP, parked at the entry to vehicle testing. Vehicle testing is nothing more than a parking lot located a safe distance from the garage and separated by concrete barricades. The racing track was available, but Xprize required written permission, review and granted approval — each time — before teams could test cars, one at a time, on the oval. So instead of jumping through insurance hoops, Xprize teams gathered back like kids at a high school parking lot to test their cars. As the radical creations zipped to and from the lot, Wolfgang Moscheid, driver and mechanic for TWX4P, waited his turn and spoke about their car.

“You see here,” he said, waving a long arm over the rear wheels, “We were concerned about rolling resistance so we modify camber. If you roll through water onto dry road, the track would only be this wide.” He shaped his fingers to one third of the tire width and a devilish smile invaded his face. “But it helps a lot with cornering.”

“What’s your overall weight?” I asked.

“Fifteen hundred fifty pounds right now — five hundred pounds too much. We want it lighter, but then the calculation is also for side impact and crash test and all the assimilations fully expressed.”

“And where would you take the weight out?”

“There’s so many parts. Like the blade in the front. Later on it’s an extruded [aluminum] channel, and the motor is more than double of the weight from what we use later on when the motor assembler will give us then a new type, especially with lower weight. These are only two parts…we don’t need this big brakes [from a production car]. At reproduction, we use a disc from a motorbike and this is enough. Some parts we build from steel and then later on from al-yoo-minium. But for this, you must have a real production and maybe ten thousand pieces a year.”

Wolfgang’s turn at the lot came. He graciously excused himself, leapt into the cockpit, and waved as the electric three-wheeler shot off in near silence.

At the steel tent frame, Oliver Kuttner had joined Paul Wilbur and Marque McCammon to watch the tests. Edison2 drove into the lot and drivers Brad Jaeger and Emanule Pirro, short-shifted their cars, lugging the engines as technicians sat beside them, divining the technical tea-leaves streaming from their laptops. The throb of the Edison2 one-cylinder engines droned alone under the intermittent whine of torque-filled electric engines and the tires screaming below them.

The Aptera rolled up for another test run. Oliver and two of his mechanics crowded around it, admiring the svelte vehicle. Aptera’s driver and lead engineer, Tom Reichenbach was at the wheel, and Oliver asked about the dash interface. Tom’s reply was surprisingly candid.

“First we went to Magneti Marelli, and they said ‘we can do you a dash.’ And they talked to us for a long time about how cheap it would be. Then they gave us the quote — nine hundred and fifty thousand dollars. We said, ‘forget that noise.’ So then we went to a place called [edited out]. They said, ‘We could give you a big discount on that — four hundred and fifty thousand dollars.’ We said, ‘Get out of here.’” Tom pointed at the bright display. “That’s out of a John Deere tractor, and we gave the manual on how to program it to one of our female engineers, Joanne, and she read it. She did that in three months.”

Oliver Kuttner, a man not easily impressed, nodded and smiled in admiration, “Nice.”

***

Hit your xprizeroadtrip bookmark in the coming weeks for days 3 and 4, featuring trackside commentary and a unique insider perspective of Le Mans racing legend, Emanuele Pirro.

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. William Flesher
    August 21, 2010 at 8:50 pm

    Thanks for another great post Eric! It’s fascinating to learn about the humans behind the machines and you do so beautifully.

    Looking forward to your next installment!

    Peace,
    William

  2. September 13, 2010 at 12:15 pm

    i have been following this blog for some time now, good job by the way

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