Second-fastest sports car runs on batteries

Entrepreneur sees sports car prototype as fulfilling the need for speed and environmental responsibility, too. Photos: Speedy and sporty Video: A spin in Wrightspeed X1

Electric cars are far superior to traditional gas cars in performance and fuel efficiency, asserts Ian Wright. The problem is the cost.

"You can't make cheap electric cars. You can now make good ones, but not cheap ones," he said. "While everyone wants efficiency, no one wants to pay for it. It's like selling safety...You've got to offer your customers more than energy efficiency."

Wrightspeed

As a result, Wright and his Burlingame, Calif., start-up, Wrightspeed, are taking a different tack than other electric car companies. Instead of trying to bring down the cost of the technology to the point where a family of four could afford an electric sedan, Wrightspeed will concentrate solely on elite sports cars selling in the $120,000 price range.

But for that price you will get a lot of car for your money, says Wright. The X1, the company's prototype, can go from a standstill to 60 miles per hour in three seconds. Put another way, by the time the car is going 60 mph, it has only traveled 117 feet.

In track tests, the X1 has handily beat Ferraris and Porsches. A Ferrari executive who took a test drive in the X1 gave Wright a one-word review: impressive. Going from zero to 100 mph and back to zero takes 11.2 seconds.

"There is only one car that you can buy that is quicker and that is the Bugatti Veyron, which does it in about 9.9 seconds," he said. "Everything else is slower."

The commercial version of the X1, which will hit the market in late 2008, will go faster, according to Wright.

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Video: The X1 electric sports car
The Wrightspeed X1 can outdo most cars on the market. CNET News.com's Michael Kanellos goes for a ride with founder/creator Ian Wright.

At the same time, it's guaranteed to get noticed. Heads turned as we drove through downtown Burlingame on a recent test drive. Because the cockpit is open, people often stop and ask questions. Wright has been pulled over by policemen, but after confirming that the car is street-legal, most want to know about the technology. In a test drive, your mood switches quickly from terror to exhilaration.

"It appeals to just about everybody," Wright said.

The problem with electric cars is not the engine. By themselves, electric engines outdo gas engines in almost every way, according to Wright and others. With gas engines, car designers either have to shoot for fuel efficiency or power: Performance is related to the rate of fuel consumption. A Dodge Neon has great gas mileage, but is slow; by contrast, a Porsche accelerates quickly but gets low gas mileage. Hitting top speeds fast also requires switching gears.

Not so with electric engines. When the power gets flipped on, the engine goes. Delivery of power to the engine is not as big of an issue. Most electrics also only have two gears, forward and reverse, so drivers don't get stumped by a mis-shift. Additionally, very little of the energy gets lost.

"The energy you take out of the wall, almost all of it ends up on the road," he said. "They are so close to nearly perfect that there is no point in inventing anything else."

Electricity is also comparatively cheap. The X1 consumes about 220 watt-hours per mile in city driving. That's the equivalent of 170 miles per gallon: The vehicle's vanity license plate reads 170 MPGE. It can be charged from a 110-volt wall socket and will be compatible with the faster chargers Tesla will bring to market.

The problem is the batteries, which effectively serve as the gas tank on an electric car. The 538-pound battery in the X1 can hold about the same amount of energy as three liters of gas.

As a result, electric cars can only travel so far without recharging. The EV1 from General Motors could only go 130 miles before it needed a recharge, and it needed a special charger. The all-electric Xebra from ZAP doesn't go on the freeway. The Tesla Roadster, an electric sports car coming from Tesla Motors, can go 200 miles before its 6,831-cell lithium ion battery peters out.

The X1 can go around 100 miles under regular conditions and might only go 25 miles in racing conditions before it needs a recharge.

"Batteries are also intrinsically expensive things," Wright said. "There's a lot of R&D involved."

The lithium-ion polymer battery on the X1, for instance, costs around $40,000. If you wanted to make an electric Honda Accord, the car's sales price would likely jump from $20,000 to $50,000.

Even with today's high gas prices, the cost of inserting a lithium polymer battery into an Accord, therefore, would be prohibitive. "At $3 a gallon, it doesn't add up," Wright said.

Tesla chairman and PayPal founder Elon Musk believes the price can be driven down. The Tesla Roadster, coming in 2007, will sell for around $90,000, but the company plans to come out with a family sedan in three years that will sell for $50,000. A cheaper version is slated for a few years after that.

Wright, who worked at Tesla, doesn't see that happening. Besides, the market is fairly large. Every year, consumers in North America alone buy around 30,000 new supercars, defined as cars that sell for $80,000 and up. That's about $3 billion a year.

Sports car boredom
The market is heavily saturated with famous brands. Still, that could prove to be an advantage because many sports car enthusiasts probably suffer from boredom. When they first buy a sports car, they love it. Two years later, it sits in the garage. (Wright speaks from personal experience. A former amateur racer in Australia, he admits that his Ferrari sits in the garage a lot these days.)

"You take your Ferrari out and everyone thinks you're a snob," he said.

Translating a prototype into a commercially viable car, however, won't be easy. Many new car companies--such as Rosen Motors, started by venture capitalist Ben Rosen--have failed.

Additionally, Wrightspeed has set some fairly aggressive goals. The commercial version of the X1 will sell for around $120,000-- far less than the $1.7 million Bugatti--and actually will be faster than the prototype. Because most of the potential purchasers won't be trained drivers, the company also has to improve the handling and stability. Wright once let a friend drive the X1 and the friend (with Wright in the passenger seat) careened into a power pole.

"We have to make the performance more accessible," he said. "It will be quicker and a lot safer to drive."

Still, the hubbub and activity around the automotive and energy market in Silicon Valley is unusually high. Tesla has already taken deposits on its first 100 cars. Companies touting new battery technology or fuel additives are landing venture funding. Fears about global warming are also prodding governments to offer incentives for alternative vehicles.

And the demand for fast cars won't vanish any day soon.

"A certain number of people turn 40 every year," Wright said.

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